Mark Twain wrote that the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is a large matter its the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
But in business writing, is it important to use the correct word or merely to strike in the vicinity?
Word choice is indeed important. Business writing can persuade, inspire, educate or enlighten. Every word has an effect, and many words are interpreted differently by people in different parts of the country, with different educational backgrounds and training. Its a good idea to choose our words carefully and to be precise. But not flowery.
Back to Twain. He is a favorite of mine. In an 1880 letter to school boy D.W. Bowser, he wrote: I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; dont let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I dont mean utterly, but kill most of them then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
An old friend recently shared his pet peeve about too much reverence for spell checkers. Reliance on spell checking programs can allow us to write vice when we mean vise. Although we may be caught in the grip of both, they are different, truly.
How much time should we spend, however, deciding whether to use alienate or antagonize, annoy or aggravate? Alienate and antagonize both mean to incur hostility. Annoy means to bother or irritate, to disturb slightly; aggravate, in its informal definition, means to irritate. (Although purists would like us to stick to its first definition, to make worse or more troublesome.)
Business writers should take enough time to decide the degree we want to express. Irk or vex is similar to annoy: not as strong as antagonize or alienate. Consider the impact of your word choice. But since time constraints affect all of us, dont agonize over these choices, particularly after you have hit the Send button on an email.
What about the use of humor or hyperbole? It depends on what were writing. Theres a place for hyperbole in marketing documents but perhaps not in product guides. Exaggerating the importance of a deadline can impel employees to action, if done rarely. Consistent exaggeration becomes humdrum and can cause our words to be ignored.
Humor can diffuse stress and build camaraderie. It can also confuse those from different cultures or perturb those with no sense of humor.
A close friend recently received a communication from his management team meant to instill camaraderie and enthusiasm in employees facing a lot of work before years end. Unfortunately, the communication was dashed off hurriedly (I only hope) and was poorly written and grammatically incorrect. Not inspiring. Managers and leaders should model in their communication what they desire in their employees. Taking a minute to consider word choices and their impact on the audience would have improved the message and probably the morale of its recipients.
Kathy McIntosh, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word. email@example.com