The almost-right word

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

Recently I stopped reading a book by a new-to-me author because (a) I wasn’t caught right off by the opening, and (b) the author used the word “ineptness.”

“Ineptness.” You know, we actually have a word for that characteristic. The word the author was looking for was “ineptitude.” Making up “ineptness” implies an inadequate vocabulary or suggests the author has no real feel for the English language. Not that I never forget the word I’m looking for, that certainly does happen, but I hope I generally know there IS the right word in my brain somewhere even if I can’t quite fish it out into the open at that particular moment.

This is different, but you know what you see all the time this decade (probably longer)? People keep using “addicting” when they mean “addictive” and “deceiving” when they mean “deceptive” and so on.

Here is a correct sentence using deceiving: “He got in trouble for deceiving his clients about the sound financial foundation of his business.”

Here is a correct sentence using deceptive: “He got in trouble because he was deceptive. He lied to his clients about the sound financial …”

We have BOTH a gerund form / past participle form AND an adjective form of lots of words. When what a writer is looking for is an adjective form, why, there it is! There is no need to press the -ing form into awkward service. Though this kind of thing is not on my top-ten pet peeve list, I guess, I do wish people would stop doing that.

Incorrect, or at least unnecessarily awkward: “Were you out last night, by any chance?” he asked with deceiving casualness.

Especially awkward since we do actually have a word for “casualness.” Several words (and phrases), each of which may very well suit the scene better than “casualness.”

“Were you out last night, by any chance?” he asked with deceptive nonchalance.

“Were you out last night, by any chance?” he asked with deceptive lack of concern.

“Were you out last night, by any chance?” he asked with deceptive indifference.

It’s not that you can’t, or even shouldn’t, use “casualness.” I guess it could be a perfect choice for some sentences, though at the moment I can’t frame a sentence that would benefit from a -ness form when we have perfectly good words like complacence and incuriosity and heaven knows what else sitting right there.

There’s my quibble for the week. Perhaps I will start a new feature: Grammar Quibble Friday.

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8 thoughts on “The almost-right word”

  1. Sorry; off topic; nearly the opposite of what your post is about.
    I just read Witchmark, by C.L. Polk, and am very impressed by it, and wanted to share that.
    A powerful story and very well written; I hope it does well and she can continue her writing.

  2. Yes, I stop reading authors that do that, too. It usually follows that the story is not that great anyway.

  3. First: read “In the Late Cretaceous” by Connie Willis, in the Impossible Things trilogy. If you can’t stand writing with a tin ear, this very short story is a brilliant send up–of that, and any number of other things. And it’s not alone: Even the Queen is very funny um, women’s issues story. And there’s a romantic comedy. And there is a brutal satire. And there is tragedy (The Last Winebago.) It’s my all time favorite SF anthology.
    Second: I recall you like reading books with good food (Sunshine, Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, etc.) B&N Nook has a free mystery from South Africa this month: Recipes for Love and Murder. You might like it.

  4. Pete Mack, I think I MUST get “In the Late Cretaceous.” Thanks for the tip! Also the tip for the S African mystery, which sounds neat.

    Elaine, “Irking over,” seriously?

    Hanneke, thanks for the pointer! I will check out Witchmark.

  5. I just had an amusing thought: Jane Austen clearly was of the same opinion, or she’d never have written Collins as a character. (He’s also a favorite prat in fan fiction.)

  6. Very true! And gosh, didn’t that work well to make him look just awful. I could hardly bear to read his scenes.

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