You’ve probably heard regarding usage that when enough of us are wrong, we’re right. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, words must mean what most educated readers think they mean. Definitions are not set in stone. Perceptions change and, over time, some words change to match that perception.
However, the safest course for professional writers, especially those working in mass media, is to follow accepted (also called standard or preferred) definitions. We should avoid misusing words — or using words that are in transition or controversial — because such use can reflect badly on both skill and credibility. As Mark Twain observed: “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Using words carefully and observing their subtleties and nuances adds razor-sharp precision to discourse, whether written or spoken. And, of course, carefully chosen words seldom distress our most literate readers.
A caution: A dictionary’s job is not prescriptive; it’s descriptive. That is, it reflects diction. So if enough people use a word a certain way, the dictionary’s job is to include that definition even if it makes the literate tear their hair. Dictionaries include usage notes when they can, but of course there’s limited room for such notes. Writers and editors need at least one good work on usage. I recommend Bryan A. Garner’s “Modern American Usage” (Oxford University Press, 2009). My “Book on Writing” also includes counsel on usage, especially in the chapter titled “Use the Right Word.”
That said, let’s look at a few words that cause confusion.
Comprise (or, worse, “comprise of”) is frequently misused in the media. The standard meaning of comprise is not “consist of” or “constitute.” Its standard definition is to include or contain, and it’s used in the way those words are used. The whole comprises the parts. The whole consists of the parts. The parts constitute the whole. This is a nation comprising 50 states. That set of history books comprises 30 volumes. “Comprise of” is always wrong, in the same way that “include of” or “contain of” are wrong.
“Different than,” which is considered ungrammatical, plagues media speech and writing. Different from is the preferred form. We can remind ourselves of which preposition we want by considering the related word differ. We would not say, “A differs than B” but, rather, “A differs from B.”
Dilemma is another problem word whose valuable distinctions are being lost. A dilemma is not a simple problem or issue or quandary or question. It’s a predicament — a situation in which one must choose between two unattractive options. Hence the expression “caught on the horns of a dilemma.” Here’s the word properly used: “He faces a dilemma: Stay in the race and risk the revelation of his tawdry history or drop out and lose what he’s invested in the race so far.”
Poignant, which means moving, touching, stirring, sad, etc., is another frequently misused word. I recently saw it used to describe the satirical humor of the @FakeAPStylebook and also the writings of certain assertive grammarians — two highly unlikely sources of the poignant. Here are some other flawed examples:
• “He described her comments as poignant, but others called them rude.”
• “He directed several poignant remarks toward the president during his few moments at the podium.”
• “He has a sharp, critical mind and is given to incisive and poignant statements.”
The distinctions of poignant are worth preserving. Here’s a longer list of the word’s synonyms and definitions: affecting, tender, emotional, distressing, heartrending, nostalgic, causing sadness or sympathy or pity, etc. Often the poignant moment is profound not just in its sadness but also in its beauty:
• “She sang ‘Ave Maria’ at her husband’s memorial, a particularly poignant choice because it was his favorite music.”
• “It was a bittersweet final day, punctuated by the poignantly beautiful setting of the sun into the fathomless Aegean.”
• “The photo would have been poignant even without my sudden pang of regret: I would never see these people again.”
By the way, that thing speakers stand behind and put their notes on, described in one of the examples above as a “podium”? That’s best described as a lectern. You stand on a podium (hence the prefix “pod,” meaning foot).
In short, words have meanings and histories. Respect those meanings and histories, and your work will be not only more precise and meaningful, but also more pointedly (not poignantly) so.
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” will be published by Marion Street Press in September. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.paulalarocque.com