The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

Unlike many other quotes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word” is truly a Mark Twain quote. It is also (IMHO) an excellent metaphor to illustrate the vital importance of word choice.

Word Choice Makes Writing an Art

Like sense of urgency and frame story, word choice can be defined by its name – it’s the words you choose when writing (*gasp* No!). As obvious and redundant as that seems, this literary device is actually the core of not only what makes writing an art but also what makes one writer different from another.

Think about it. No, seriously, picture a scene from real life. Interesting, banal, recent, historic – it doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly picture what happened. Now, think about how many different ways you could write that scene. You could turn it into horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical realism, romance, etc. You could write it from first person, second person, third person limited, or even narrate it. You could use elaborate descriptions or lean, mean sentences that are cut down to the action alone.

Hundreds of ways to write the same scene.

And all those differences come from the words you choose and how you put them together. The mood you want to create, the tone of the piece, and even your personal style as a writer, it all comes down to this one literary device.

Down to “the difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine if Mark Twain said this quote today in today’s language. Would he have said, “lightning and a lightning bug” or “fire and a firefly”? They have the same relationship, right? And “lightning bug” and “firefly” are words for the same insect.

But doesn’t that word choice change the characterization of the speaker? Could it change the setting? If you write the same story with different words, is it the same story?

Or is it as different as “lightning and a lightning bug”?

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With Dialect, What Words You Say Are as Important as How You Say Them

One reason that some authors say not to write in dialect at all is that syntax and word choice can be used to suggest a dialect, region, or first language without modifying the words whatsoever. For example, in the U.S., specific kinds of pronoun errors are common to more rural areas (also often poorer areas with worse education though not always).

“I got them books,” “They gave it to her and I,” “Clay and me bought two,” etc.

Alternately, putting words in the wrong order is a common way to suggest that English isn’t a character’s first language. Sentence structure can vary greatly from language to language, and small order errors can be telling. With ESL, it’s very common to drop articles and prepositions or to put adjectives in the wrong place (See “The 10 Most Common ESL Mistakes” by Scribendi). Another useful mistake is using the wrong synonym for a word with multiple meanings (“I tried to novel a room at the hotel”) or for more extreme examples, completely reordering the sentence: an example of this Yoda’s speech patterns are.

Actually, Yoda’s speech patterns are more similar to the syntax of languages like Japanese where the verb usually comes last (after the subject and object, which can vary in order). For Russian speakers, on the other hand, it is more common for books and movies to change the syntax to verb-object-subject-verb (“Knows this, everyone does.”). I don’t know much about Russian, so I can’t say how close that is to the Russian language – but it has become the usual dialect tactic.

Of course, if you know a language well, you can better adjust the errors that a character raised on that language might make when speaking English (by following the rules of the first language instead). Otherwise, researching the linguistics might be slower and more painful than paying attention to what kind of syntax and word choice other authors and screenwriters use to suggest that accent or origin.

But wait – there’s more.

Besides errors, you can also use slang, jargon, idioms, and colloquialisms to give an impression of dialect as well as general characterization. The use of “lass” implies Scotland while “cher” is more New Orleans, “sugar” is general South, and so on. Whether a character calls part of the car a “fender” or a “bumper” tells more than we realize. While it’s easy to think of that as more characterization, that type of characterization strongly influences how we read dialogue.

Try imagining “as useful as a milk pail under a bull” in an upperclass British dialect. Now, try to hear “Bob’s your uncle” in a strong Appalachian accent. It’s kind of hard to do, isn’t it? (And yet hilarious).

Since each phrase is strongly associated with a specific accent (because the phrase itself is more likely to be heard in a specific region), you don’t need to modify the words at all to bring that accent to mind. The reader automatically assumes those words are read in that accent.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use the other method. In fact, errors and word choice can work very well with word modification to communicate a dialect without becoming overly complicated or confusing. And with the added characterization, it’s a win-win situation. If you want to show, not tell when it comes to character background and dialect, a character’s word choice is one of the best tools you have.

Characterization Through Dialogue

If you’re having trouble with characterization, you might want to check the dialogue. Even though real people don’t talk like book characters, dialogue is one of the fastest and most reliable ways to communicate what a character is like and where a character is from without going into a lot of detail. And the most important part of using dialogue for characterization is phrasing and word choice.

Do you say “sofa” or “couch”? Do you say “pop,” “soda,” or “coke”?

People from different areas use different words for the same objects. If your character’s supposed to be from California, having him/her say “pop” for a carbonated beverage is going to raise some questions in readers who know that “soda” is more common in California.

The same is true for idioms/colloquialisms (sayings). A person from an upper class New England family is unlikely to say, “He’s busier than a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest.” If the character does, you’ve automatically thrown a curve ball into the story and have to explain that this character is not your typical rich kid from New England.

Ok. Use the right slang and sayings. That’s it, right?

Nope. In addition to region and class, word choice also varies by character. As a rule, men tend to speak more confidently or aggressively while women are more likely to try to soften their speech with words and phrases like, “if that’s ok,” “probably,” “seems,” etc. Of course, that’s a generalization, and this will definitely vary by culture and subculture. It will even vary from character to character within a culture.

But that’s the point. It should vary by character. Whatever the character is like – bold, hesitant, quiet, chatty, whatever – it should show in the dialogue.

That’s why messing up the dialogue can totally change the characterization. Using the wrong slang, the wrong saying, or the wrong words – any one of these can give an impression that you didn’t mean to give. Or it could fail to establish a character quirk that you wanted to highlight. Or undermine facts you’ve already laid out.

Characterization and dialogue go hand in hand (or foot in mouth, depending). If something’s wrong with one, it’s time to check the other.