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VOL. 129 | NO. 28 | Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Red Pen, Red Face

By Susan Drake

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Susan Drake

Never, ever hesitate to look things up. This admonition is closely related to, “Never assume anything.” Both of those are why my face was red a couple of days ago.

I was editing a paper in which the author had written that two legislative bodies struggled over their “collegial” relationship. Here comes the red pen, because I knew it was contradictory to say they struggled over a collegial (friendly) relationship, correct?

In journalism, everyone wants at least two sets of eyes on whatever they write, just to be safe. I marked up the sentence for the writer to correct it, and passed it along to Joe, the second set of eyes.

Joe disagreed with me. I became adamant. Then Joe showed me the definition of collegial: “power-sharing, with power shared equally between colleagues.” Uh-oh. Apologies for the writer and a red face for me.

There’s a very quick way to lose your credibility; be a writer who misuses words. Ergo, look it up. No writer in the world should ever stop learning about words and usage.

Believe it or not, to us this is fun and games. I used to joke that I was such a daredevil, I would work The New York Times Sunday crossword in ink. Take that!

If you’re not a professional writer, remember that no matter what your job, you still have to speak and write effectively to be taken seriously. And if you want to expand your personal power, you’ll definitely want to become a better writer.

Start by enhancing your vocabulary.

Each day, choose a word from the dictionary. Better yet, check out a word-a-day website. Pick a word that intrigues you. Feels good as you say it. And will be natural to use in your everyday speech.

To illustrate, I picked a word out of the dictionary: spall. (Non-Southerners will think this is the proper spelling for “spoil,” as in “spall the baby” or “ball” the water.) Anyway, spall is a chip of stone or ore. Then I try to use the word in a sentence three times that day. It works.

Of course, even if you only use the vernacular, or ordinary language, you still have many choices. Do you drink a soda, a cola or a soft drink?

So, as I was writing this, I looked up how many words there are in the English language. The short answer is, about 250,000. How many does the average person know? A whole lot fewer than that – about 12,000 to 20,000.

Even if you do this exercise every day for the next 10 years, you will only learn about 36,000 words. At the same time, you’ll also have to learn the new words that are joining our vernacular, such as “drone,” “bot” and “selfie.”

It’s clear: If you want to work your way up to 250,000, you’d better get busy.

Susan Drake is a marketing and communications professional. Contact her at susand@spellbindersinc.com.

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