Ask the Editor™
Volume 10, Issue 3

In this issue:

Word Power

Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Yet, despite our best efforts, words come many layered, loaded with meanings and connotations.

Try this experiment at home or in your office. Ask a group of people to think of a tree. Then go around the room and have everyone tell you what came to mind. Here are the answers I got: Christmas tree, maple tree, oak tree, pine tree, redwood, palm tree, and Joshua tree. Not a single answer was the same.

It is widely believed that every word has an indisputable meaning and that dictionaries are the ultimate authority on the "true" meaning of words. The truth is, no two people experience language exactly the same way so the meaning of a word will vary slightly—or greatly—from person to person.

Because meaning resides not in the word itself, but in the minds of those who use it, meaning is to a great extent amorphous. In fact, modern linguists would argue that, because no two contexts are ever exactly the same, no word has exactly the same meaning twice.

A dictionary, then, is not a book of laws, but a historical record of our language. Dictionaries reflect the constantly changing nature of language. We are continually coming up with new words—and new meanings for old words—to reflect new inventions, new experiences, and cultural change.

Dictionary editors don't define how words are used. On the contrary, they continuously study how people use words to see if any new meanings are emerging. (For an excellent treatment of this subject, see "The English Language in the Dictionary" section of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.)

Meaning ultimately depends on verbal, social, and physical contexts. That said, language is still an incredibly powerful shared code that allows us to communicate with each other. The following section describes strategies for increasing word power.

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“Words are loaded pistols.” Jean-Paul Sartre

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Strategies for Increasing Word Power

- Avoid redundant phrases such as illegal crimes, completely finish, basic fundamentals, future plans, or close proximity.

- Avoid starting a sentence with "There are…" Not: "There are many drivers who avoid signaling." But: "Many drivers avoid signaling."

- Turn nouns into verbs. Not: "He made a decision to play pool." But: "He decided to play pool."

- Get rid of "who are" and "which are." Not: "Children who are in the street should be disciplined." But: "Children in the street should be disciplined."

- Cut prepositional phrases whenever possible. Not: "We are in need of talented writers." But: "We need talented writers."

- Avoid "to be" in sentences like, "Ruth is considered to be the greatest hitter." Instead: "Ruth is considered the greatest hitter."

- Delete meaningless words: kind of, actually, particularly, really, certain, virtually, individually, basically, generally, given, various, practically. Instead of: "Winning depends on certain factors that basically include discipline and persistence." Write: "Winning depends on discipline and persistence."

- Avoid "the fact that." Instead of "due to the fact that," "in light of the fact that," or "owing to the fact that," write "because" or "since." Instead of "despite the fact that" or "regardless of the fact that," write "although" or "even though."

- Replace phrases with a word. For example, instead of "in the event that," use "if"; instead of "on the occasion that," use "when"; instead of "in reference to," use "about"; instead of "it is possible that," use "may"; and instead of "in the very near future," use "soon."

- Use clear, simple words, for example, "total" instead of "aggregate," "help" instead of "facilitate," "start" instead of "commencement," "meet" instead of "interface," and "find out" instead of "ascertain."

- Avoid pretentious words or phrases, for example, instead of "tendered her resignation," use "quit" or instead of "impacted positively by," use "improved."

- Avoid antiquated, overly formal phrases such as "pursuant to our conversation" and "as per your request." If you wouldn't use a phrase in everyday conversation, don't use it in writing.

- Understand the difference between commonly confused words such as affect/effect, continual/continuous, and farther/further.

- Use original language instead of worn out clichés such as "bury the hatchet," "hit the nail on the head," or "take the ball and run with it."

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“Words are awkward instruments and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think.” William Burroughs

Actual Headlines

Double meanings illustrate the ambiguous nature of language. Consider these actual headlines:

- Police can't stop gambling

- Fonda gives poor exercise, acting tips

- U.S. ships head to Somalia

- Clinton visits hurt soldiers

- Voter fears alert politicians

(Source: Fractured English, by Richard Lederer.)

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“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” Ernest Hemingway

Ask the Editor™ Question

How do you copyright materials published on the Internet?


Nathan Stanton


There’s no special distinction made in copyright laws between material published on the Internet and other types of media, so copyright works essentially the same way as print media. It gives the author the exclusive right to authorize and control the copying, distribution, performance, and display of copyrighted work. It protects "original works of authorship," such as literary, musical, and dramatic works; pictorial and graphic works; and motion pictures and sound recordings.


To copyright something posted to the Internet, you don’t need to register with the copyright office. It is protected automatically upon creation. It is even protected without notice—(c) 2010 by John Smith—although this is still common practice. There are, however, certain advantages to providing notice and registering copyright, such as being eligible to receive more damages in the event of a lawsuit.


Because material on the Internet is so easily copied and downloaded, many forget that it is afforded the same protection as printed material. Never assume that you can re-post any material you find on the Internet without securing permission from the holder of the copyright. Even email messages are protected.


"The Editor"

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