Roger That: A few words on writing

November 9, 2012

Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing. 

Work on Your Everyday Vocabulary

By Roger Shirley

Roger Shirley

I ran across a word in one of George Will’s recent Washington Post columns that had me scurrying to the dictionary. “Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his roughneck’s reputation and stevedore’s profanity, whose ideas are as admirable as his manners are deplorable.”

What in the world is a stevedore, I wondered? I’d seen the word before, somewhere; but I couldn’t even make a wild guess on what it meant. (Turns out it’s a person who loads and unloads ships at port. I’ll probably never have much use for it, but it’s now in my arsenal.)

I many times disagree with George Will politically, but I read him often as a reminder that having a fully loaded vocabulary can come in handy.

It’s an obvious point, perhaps, but one worth stating: One of the best ways to become a better writer is to improve your vocabulary.

While that means learning new words, it is equally important – perhaps more so – to learn to use your “old words” correctly. (For years, before I cared enough to start looking words up, I thought that a “maven” was an older woman who was in control of something.)

Take the term “hone in,” as in to focus on an objective. That is incorrect. What people mean is “home in.” The term originally referred to what homing pigeons did and was later adopted by the military relating to targets. To “hone” means to sharpen.

Likewise, many people do not know the difference between comprise and compose. (Hint: Never say “comprised of.”) “Proximity” means close to, so “close proximity” is redundant. The abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are not interchangeable. And on and on.

If busting someone for writing “comprised” when he means “composed” seems petty, I apologize; but petty editors help make better writers, and besides, I can assure you that I’m not being condescending when I do it – far from it. I am at times embarrassed by my fuzziness on the meaning of fairly common words, such as “innocuous” (although I’ve known what “harmless” means since I was a kid) and “discerning,” which is something I’m too often not.

Eventually, I will break down and look them up. And that’s the key – shed your embarrassment (or your laziness), learn the definition of a word and start using it correctly.

Or you can choose not to use it, but at least you won’t be avoiding it because you are fuzzy on the meaning.

I remember one day back in the eighth grade when the class nerd exclaimed in the lunch line that his French fries were tepid. I had no idea what it meant, so I looked it up. Forty-something years later, I still haven’t used tepid in an original sentence; but if I’m ever so moved, I will do so with confidence.

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One Response to “Roger That: A few words on writing”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I can’t believe I knew a word that Roger didn’t…stevedore!


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