Words Mean Things

A few months after college, Stephanie Beck started as a part-time videotape editor at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. In the nearly 19 years since, she has edited every newscast, produced every newscast, produced half-hour specials and special event coverage, won 2 Emmys and a Murrow, and earned her Master’s degree along the way. She now produces the 6pm newscast at WRAL and On the Record, the weekly public affairs broadcast. In her free time, she is a competitive West Coast Swing dancer, blogs food competitions and freelances as a writing coach.

A few weeks ago, The “A” Block brought you a list of 10 phrases and cliches to avoid in your writing. One of the items on that list led me to crawl upon my own personal soapbox, which can be summarized in three words:

Words mean things.

This is a phrase my friends and co-workers will hear me say often. Some of them have even adopted it themselves. We use it most when we read an article or hear something on TV – and not necessarily the news, either – where someone has blatantly used the wrong word. They don’t mean to do it, and you don’t either. However, it happens, and when it does, it waters down your writing and your audience’s understanding of what you want to say.

At times, using the wrong word can change the meaning of a news story entirely. I’ll leave it to one of the many other bloggers out there to help you learn the difference between lie and lay, or effect and affect. Here is a list of words that are so commonly misused that many writers don’t even realize their true meaning.

Electrocuted: The dictionary definition of “electrocute” includes death. If the victim did not die, they “received a shock.”

Totally Destroyed: Redundant! The dictionary definition of “destroy” is to damage something beyond repair, so to completely damage something beyond repair is rather repetitive.

Decimate: While we’re talking about destroying things, “decimate” is not synonymous with devastation. “Decimate” means to damage a part of something, not the whole thing.

Strangle to death: By definition, “to strangle” means to cause death by cutting off air flow. Do you really want to say “He caused his death to death”?

Nauseous: This one is almost always used incorrectly. People use it in everyday language to mean “to feel sick.” Actually, it is used to describe something that causes nausea. (Pro tip – make sure not to confuse it with “noxious”, which means “harmful”)

Migrant/refugee: I had to include one pairing on this list, because it’s timely and I’m hearing it almost every day somewhere. No matter how much you need a synonym for “refugee”, “migrant” is not it! The difference between the two is choice. A refugee is someone forced to flee their country to escape persecution, war, or natural disaster. A migrant is a person who chooses to move to find work.  

In the wake of: This saying comes from the use of “wake” to specifically describe the path a boat cuts through water. Use “in the aftermath” instead. Regionally, some parts of the country also use it as a synonym for “instead of”. For that use, I recommend “in the stead of” or “in place of”.

Get: This is a verb that is overused to the point that it has nearly lost its meaning. Every time you use this word, there is probably another verb with more specific meaning that can both clarify your writing and save you time. A few examples:

        “Get milk at the store” – Buy milk at the store.

        “He didn’t get it” – He didn’t understand it.

        “She got sick on the trip” – She caught a cold.  

        “Get me that book” – Hand me that book.

            “He got the book from her.” – He received the book from her.

Big: This is also so overused it has little meaning. A few examples:

        “A big deal” – important, consequential

        “A big man” – he’s large… in what ways? Tall? Wide, solid? Imposing? Or perhaps you don’t mean his size at all, but his power. Is he a powerful man in his line of work? Is he a key player in something?

Pro tip – don’t forget – each of these synonyms carry not only their own meanings, but also their own connotations and mental baggage.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to misused words? Please share, so we can all learn something.

2 thoughts on “Words Mean Things

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