How Do You Say . . .

The English language has a vast vocabulary, more than anyone–well, me–can fully comprehend. Do we need a dozen words to describe shoes? Yes, if we have a dozen pairs–heels, loafers, sneakers, stilettos, slippers, boots, etc. This variety lets us be specific. I know that I have to wear shoes today to visit the museum, but I won’t wear slippers, boots, or stilettos. (The last because I don’t own any.) The weather is not right for sandals, flip-flops, or ski boots. I’ll wear my tie shoes that are not quite sneakers, not exactly anything but comfortable. I don’t need at the moment to be more precise.

As a writer, though, I value precision. And then there’s the matter of how a character speaks. Word choice defines his/her attitude, ethnicity, economic class, age, gender, all revealed by diction.

Play this game with one of your characters, a fictional person or a family figure in your memoir: the scene is a restaurant (diner, pizza parlor, white linen?) and the character is female. She excuses herself to use the ladies’ room, powder room, toilet, bathroom, restroom, or potty. Maybe she goes to the little girls’ room or the loo. And there’s a range of less polite names for this interruption in her dinner/supper/lunch/luncheon/bite to eat.

If good writing is about the exact word in exactly the right place, we have to pay attention to these choices. You’ll occasionally use that big red book of synonyms. And your character will remain in character, unless she’s trying to impress a date with her gritty language or her delicate sensibilities.

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