What does “wrong word” mean?

When a reader—whether it’s an editor or instructor, a friend or a member of your critique group—uses the term wrong word, it can mean a number of things.

Sometimes it can mean a simple misspelling, such as using the word their instead of the word there.

In the Top Twenty list of common errors (Lundsford & Lundsford), wrong word is actually the first or top occurring mistake. As an error, wrong word actually moved up from number 5 position on the original 1986 list, “Twenty Most Common Errors,” discussed in blog post 2. One reason for this change is that spelling was not included in the first list. Despite spell check, spelling errors in the early survey accounted for the most frequent mistakes by some 300%, so it was left off so as not to skew the results.

While the later study found that spelling errors have significantly declined, they are still frequent enough to make it to #5 on the Top Twenty list. Thus, misspelling sound-a-like words or homonyms, which were originally included in the wrong word pattern, are now grouped under spelling on the later list.  

A type of spelling error that continues to be included under the wrong word category is when a misspelling of a word such as definitely is changed by a spell-checker to defiantly (library.wwu.edu). Other patterns or errors include mixing up words that sound somewhat alike (illusion and allusion), using a word with the wrong shade of meaning (compose instead of comprise), and using a word with a completely wrong meaning (prevaricate instead of procrastinate) (undergrad.stanford.edu).

As an editor of both student and professional papers, I prefer to mark wrong word mistakes as WC or word choice, rather than as WW. It seems more positive, and it turns the focus back on the writer to think about his or her word choice, and to ask: is this the word I really want to use, or is this the best word I can use to express my ideas?

Dictionaries and thesauruses are available online, making it convenient and easy to check to see if you are using the right word:

“Dictionaries and thesauruses provide writing assistance for writers of all levels of experience and ability. Think of them as tools that will help you to do your very best writing. A dictionary can help you determine the precise denotations of words, while a thesaurus, used responsibly, can help you to capture subtle differences in the connotations of words” (Handbook for Writers, sayloracademy.org).

The detonation of a word is its explicit or direct meaning. In addition to the literal meaning of a word, dictionaries provide a host of other information, including spelling, pronunciation, word origins, and synonyms and antonyms. Jan Venolia in The Right Word! says to look up the word and explore “synonyms, roots, and usage notes. Many’s the time a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary has led me to the word that fits, much as the right jigsaw puzzle piece slips into place” (qtd in Norquist, “Ten Tips for Finding the Right Word” ThoughtCo.com).

On the other hand, the connotation of a word is an idea or feeling that the word invokes in addition to its primary meaning; for instance, “the word discipline has unhappy connotations of punishment and repression” (Google Dictionary).

As Biedler writes, it’s important to be familiar with the connotations of any possible synonyms for a word you’re considering. For instance, “Portly, chubby, chunky, heavy, overweight, stocky, plump, and obese are all possible synonyms for fat, but they are not interchangeable. . . . Your task is to select the word that conveys most accurately the precise shade of meaning or feeling you intend” (Writing Matters qtd in Norquist).

The task of choosing the right word rather than the wrong word is part of the revision process. When we’re composing, getting down our impressions and ideas during free or timed writing and early drafts, we’re working with “approximations,” “near synonyms,” and “almost-right words,” while “converting inexact words to precise ones remains a critical part of revising our drafts” (Norquist).

Choosing the right words is also important to effective description, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Nancy Strauss, of CreativeWritingNow.com, urges writers to pay attention to “the feeling of the words you choose as well as to their meaning.” Using as an example two words, glowing and glittering, she shows how though they both refer to light, they are different:

“Something that glows has a light that shines as from within. Lit windows glow. Healthy skin might seem to glow. Something that glitters generally reflects many tiny points of light. Diamonds glitter. Icicles glitter. The word glow sounds soft, and the word glitter sounds hard. The word glow sounds warm, and the word glitter sounds cold.”

As discussed, using the wrong word is the new number one error in the list of Top Twenty identified as most likely to attract a readers’ negative attention. Not only will the reader be predisposed to judge your writing more harshly, but by using the wrong word, you also risk failing to communicate your ideas or visions effectively.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

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