© 2009 Ugur Akinci
Using the right words is so critical in communications in general and technical writing in particular.
The wrong word can take the conversation to a totally unintended direction, sometimes with humorous and other times with not-so-humorous results.
Here is an example…
As I was jogging the other day I was listening to my favorite FM station on my earphones. It was an informative and heart-breaking report on the increasing number of rapes in Congo and how the U.S. Secretary of State Clinton has addressed the issue during her visit to Africa, etc.
But at one point I was jolted with the reporter’s reference to how the United Nations has “enshrined” rape as a crime against humanity!
I totally agree with the reporter that rape is an ugly act of violence. But how can it be “enshrined” when the verb should be used only for those holly objects that are kept in a religious shrine?
If rape is “enshrined” what’s next? Murder? Genocide?
Perhaps the reporter meant to say “singled out”? Or “categorized”? “redefined”?
Or how about when the act itself is confused with the number of times it is committed?
For example, when I hear the phrase “rape has increased since January” I’m pretty sure the reporter has meant to say “the number of rape cases has increased since January” since the former does not make any sense in English.
Another: some people refer to “Center for Terrorism” when they actually mean “Center for Counter-Terrorism” or “Center to Prevent Terrorism.” Otherwise it means the Center in question supports terrorism! Oops.
If you spend just a few extra seconds when you are choosing a verb or an adjective you would be a more efficient communicator. An average person may not have sufficient reasons to care to pick the right words. But as a professional communicator who is paid for veracity and clarity, it’s your job to do so.
The “cloud of unknowing”, that ambiguity that sometimes surrounds our phrases and sentences, is usually due to our inability to pick the correct word rather than an uncertainty inherent in the object that we are describing. It’s usually us, not the world. So there’s always hope.