Here are 3 ways your words could be wrong:
Using a similar-sounding but incorrect word.
- Using a "50-cent word" when a common word is clearer.
- Using an inappropriate social level ("register") of words, such as formal words for a casual situation.
1. Similar sounding words
Below are some examples of the "foolish" wrong kind.The words in bold are examples of malapropisms -- which are similar sounding words that may have humorous results.
"That's another thing. I don't want to hear anymore how it was in your day. From now on, keep your antidotes (correct word: anecdotes) to local color, like Dynoflow or the McGuire Sisters." (Tony Soprano to "Feech" La Manna in The Sopranos)
"A witness shall not bear falsies (correct: false witness)against thy neighbor." (Archie Bunker in All in the Family)
"Republicans understand the importance of bondage (correct: bonding) between a mother and child." -former Vice President Dan Quayle
"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian (correct: authoritative)voice saying exactly what happened." -George W. Bush, March 17, 2009, on what he hopes to accomplish with his memoir.
It's easy to confuse similar sounding words, as with the word prodigal (one who squanders resources) and prodigy (an unusually talented young person.)
2. "Fifty-cent" words
Sometimes speakers employ inflated or unusual words in order to sound "educated" or authoritative. Some professionals are prone to such use, e.g., professors, medical doctors, engineers, and attorneys. (Also, some trades persons like auto mechanics and computer tech people.) When they speak to us ordinary folks in specialized languages or with "big words," they easily confuse us.
(When I was a graduate student in communication studies, a few professors preferred the word bifurcate to the simpler word divide. However, sometimes when precision of meaning is required, special words like "malapropism" or "register" work best.)
Here is a funny example with lofty words certain to confuse most hearers:
"Let your conversation possess a clarified conciseness, compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabical profundity, pompous prolixity, and ventriloquial vapidity. Shun double-entendre and prurient jocosity, whether obscure or apparent. In other words, speak truthfully, naturally, clearly, purely, but do not use large words."
--Michael Quinion, publisher of World Wide Words (passed on by my friend Bob Kelly, publisher of the monthly Kellygram, Wisdom and Wit About the Wonderful and Often Wacky World of Words. (It's available free at Bob's website.
3. Socially inappropiate words
Words in an inappropriate social register can cause offense. In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, an intimate
register is usually used between close friends or family members and may include a private vocabulary, special nicknames, and standing jokes known only to those persons.
A subscriber sent me an example of using an inappropriate register. She is an elegant senior lady who shared that sometimes young waitresses would address her and her lady friends with "What can I get for you guys?" Very off-putting, indeed!
Here in Las Vegas, both supermarket cashiers and cocktail waitresses casually address customers as "Hon," but no one is offended because virtually everyone is addressed this same way. (Yesterday evening the cashier called the woman ahead of me "Honey," then called me "Hon.")
Registers are on a spectrum from intimate to frozen (extremely fixed in word choice and tone, such as in oaths, pledges, and biblical quotations.)
is the most common register among friends and co-workers. It includes slang, frequent interruptions, and animated speech.
For business and professional relationships, the consultative register is usually appropriate, such as between teacher-student, doctor-patient, salesperson-customer, waiter-guest.
I am put off by strangers I encounter at professional meetings that immediately use a "buddy-buddy" register as if we're old friends. I become wary when they assume a close relationship that doesn't exist. (The appropriate register with strangers is casual, not intimate.)
I acknowledge that today's article is a bit more technical than usual, and I hope you found it to be both interesting and practical.
Loren Ekroth © 2012, All rights reserved
Reprinted from Better Conversations, an ezine featuring articles and tips to enhance conversation skills. Subscribe free and receive immediate access to 32 articles at www.conversationmatters.com.
Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and an international expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people.