Merriam-Webster’s Election ‘Coverage’


On the eve of Election Day in the United States, there are all kinds of words swirling around. Let’s look at the vocabulary of an election. (All definitions are from

Rhetoric: 1. the art of speaking or writing effectively…; 2. a: the study   skill in the effective use of speech; b:  a type or mode of language or speech; also:  insincere or grandiloquent language; 3:  verbal communication:  discourse

Partisan: 1.:  a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially:  one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance

Campaign: 1. a connected series of military operations forming a distinct phase of a war; 2.  a connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result <election campaign>

Stump:  5. a place or occasion for public speaking (as for a cause or candidate); also:  the circuit followed by a maker of such speeches —used especially in the phrase on the stump

Swing:  ato cause to move vigorously through a wide arc or circle <swing an ax> b:  to cause to sway to and fro; c (1 :  to cause to turn on an axis (2) :  to cause to face or move in another direction <swing the car into a side road> [A swing state is a state whose voting may swing the election in one direction.]

Pollster:  someone who makes questions for a poll, asks questions in a poll, or collects and presents results from a poll

Those headed out to vote tomorrow can now feel secure in their knowledge of election terminology. Have fun!


Weekend Wrinkle: Even the Best Vocabulary Can Go Awry

Even people with good vocabularies can make mistakes, especially when words are close in meaning.


Recently, I saw a job posting for a large company looking for someone with skills to “compliment” the company’s values.

I guess they’ll get lots of cover letters that describe the values as smart, attractive, and progressive. I’m not sure how well those candidates’ skill sets will fit together with (complement) what the company needs.

One blog post said a sports team “wreaked” of apathy. I’m sure what the writer meant was reeked.

The one that caused a double take and which I actually had to look up was one blogger’s need to “allude” a poor situation. I knew it was wrong; I just needed to check to make sure that the writer wasn’t referring to the situation but looking to avoid (or elude) it.

Hey, I’m the woman who always has to check continual versus continuous.

The moral is: Don’t assume, just because you have a really good vocabulary, you won’t make mistakes.  When in doubt, look it up.

Does Culling Vocabulary ‘Dumb Down’ Future Writing?

In “Elegy for lost verbiage,” Economist Obituary Editor Ann Wroe  wrote a wonderful piece using words that are disappearing from the SAT verbal test in 2016. RIP vocabulary

The piece was sent to me recently by my friend (and clipping service) Barbara S. Rivette. The editor in both of us just can’t let items like this pass by.

Now, I’m not opposed to eliminating antediluvian words such as cleave, gourmand, pellucid, penurious, vituperate, and obstreperous. However, I think the College Board has gone a little too far.

Among the words headed for the garbage heap are garrulous, virtuoso, duress, licentious, dirge, bashful, quaint, negligent, and (appropriately) extraneous. I think these are words that can pinpoint meaning and give just the right seasoning to our writing. Other words on the chopping block that I think are vivid and useful are maelstrom, nadir, beguile, morass, tirade, and anachronistic.

With immediate access to online dictionaries, why are we eliminating these words from the vocabulary of our young people? Will we revert to monosyllabic synonyms to ensure students can pass their SATs with enough points to get into college? What then?

One of the best things about English is its lush, expansive vocabulary. It has a huge inventory that allows for beautiful verbal creations. Can you imagine poets 25 years from now not having diaphanous in their word arsenals?

By not expecting students to stretch their vocabularies, are we doing a disservice to future writers?

The Clues Are in the Vocabulary

When we are in a face-to-face conversation, we receive lots of information from nonverbal clues. When we read, we can’t see somvector-typewriter-10158eone’s facial expression, nor can we hear tonal changes in the words. What can writers do to compensate for this?

Writers use active, descriptive words and precise vocabulary to create clarity. It sounds easy, but it’s something people have a hard time with. Writers just need to remember the visual they are trying to present or the questions readers might have, and include words to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how writers can clue readers in.

Describe the Scene

Maybe we have a young character who is trying to avoid telling her mother the truth about how she did on a test. We know she’ll try to avoid outright lying but will do her best to skirt the truth.

What kinds of things will she do that will indicate that she is uncomfortable? What words will she use to answer her mother? How can we incorporate these things in our writing?

“How did you do on that test?” her mother asked.

Emily rolled her eyes toward the ceiling over her mother’s right shoulder as she shifted from one foot to the other.

“Umm. Well, I didn’t fail,” she grimaced with a weak, “heh, heh!”

If we had just written “Well, I didn’t fail,” Emily said, we might not understand the whole situation.  We paint the scene by describing Emily’s actions and the way she is speaking with specific vocabulary.

Use Precise Words

I already hear a bunch of you saying, “That’s great for fiction, but that doesn’t help me write a business letter.”

Well, precise language is even more important in business than it is in fiction. We lose efficiency when we don’t make ourselves clear.

Lots of folks have a hard time with this on resumes.

I’m a hardworking team player with advanced education. I am a highly qualified, successful worker with mad management skills.

Would you hire this person? What job would you hire her for? How many questions about the candidate pop into your head when you read this?

Say the job is for a design engineer in the air conditioning industry.

I led a team of seven engineers, designers, and lab technicians on a three-month project to increase SEER* in a five-ton residential unit from 14 to 16 with minimal changes to existing parts or footprint. (Note: I’m not an HVAC engineer so, if the numbers seem ridiculous, sorry about that.)

Notice that the candidate uses specific vocabulary to explain working on a team, leadership skills, time frame, and industry knowledge.

In business writing, the trick is to answer all the questions before someone has the opportunity to ask.  When people have to stop and seek further information, they waste time.

Revision is where most writers will see what words they need to put in, take out, or change. (Remember, we never skip the revision step.)

The trick is to avoid vague, general, weak words whenever we’re writing.

*SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio

Who Cares About Shakespeare?

“I don’t know why we have to read Shakespeare,” grumbled a student recently.

Why should we care what someone who’s been dead going on 400 years had to say? What possible relevance could his writing have in an ever-connected, electronic, modern world?

The reason the Bard has lasted half a millennium is because he was a master of exposing the desires and emotions that make us human: envy, greed, arrogance, love, miscommunication, and social status. These things never change.

What sets him apart from a glorified Elizabethan soap opera writer is the way he develops his characters and their interrelationships. His plays are multi-layered. He can evoke sympathy for some of his most evil characters like Iago. He can make us lose patience with the hero (Hamlet).  He can show how the responsibilities of power can change our relationship with our friends (Henry V).

Modern relevance? Shakespeare dealt with depression and mental health issues hundreds of years ago in plays like Hamlet and King Lear. 

However (and this is a big “however”), there are two main problems facing modern readers of Shakespeare’s work. These are what produce groans and complaints from students.

A Rose by Any Other Name

The first is vocabulary. Let’s face it; English has changed in 500 years – a lot! It’s hard enough keeping track of the changes in word meanings and slang from the last half century let alone the last half millennium. And Shakespeare loved throwing in double meanings his Elizabethan audiences would have known and appreciated.

When I want to read Shakespeare, I first have to remind myself of some of the nuances of the vocabulary. Yes, reading the footnotes can be annoying, but they help me “get it.”

When we read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, I had a teacher who was wise enough to realize that Shakespeare’s English was like Greek to us.  He also knew that, if he pointed out some of the racier double entendres, he could keep the attention of his teenage students.  I thought he was a little crazy, but he made the play more real for us.

Any writer knows meaning is vitally important for painting the right picture. English has so many words! Synonyms have shades of meaning that can make a masterpiece out of a cartoon.

With Shakespeare, those shades of meaning are faded and need to be restored for us to appreciate the full richness of his work.

The Play Is the Thing

The second major problem with teaching Shakespeare is that students read the plays. Folks, the Bard’s work was meant for the stage, not the page.

Unlike a novel, where the author sets the scene and describes what is going on, a play is written with off-stage direction and dialog. If we can’t see and hear the speakers, with vocal inflections and body language, it’s really tough to get a good feel for the characters. It’s almost like reading a bunch of statements.

It wasn’t until I took a Shakespeare class in college that I truly appreciated the difference. At the time, PBS was running a series of BBC-produced Shakespeare plays. My professor held play-watching parties at her house. It was fun, and we got to experience Shakespeare the way he wanted us to – by watching the actors.

The Wheel Is Come Full Circle

Too often we think of Shakespeare as some guy sitting in a room churning out plays teachers tell us are masterpieces. Shakespeare lived in a time of political turmoil, intrigue, social class struggles, racism, and religious persecution. He sometimes put things into his plays that could be seen as critical to the monarchy, and he often skirted disaster.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a great PBS series that explores some of Shakespeare’s plays, what they mean, and the setting in which they were written.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare was a real man, living in a real world, with real problems. He used his talent to hold up a mirror to the world to say, “This is what you are, and this is what you could be.”

So, yes, what Shakespeare wrote centuries ago is still very much relevant today.

*$%&*@#(%&! Say What?

Profanity is the refuge of the ignorant.

It’s not that people who feel the need to constantly spout profanity are unintelligent; it’s that they display an extremely limited vocabulary.

Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe it is the taste of Ivory soap that lingers in my memory.

My mother didn’t tolerate bad language. (She even had a crusade against “ain’t.”) It wasn’t that she was immune to the need for explosive expressions upon occasion. “Sugar” was something she would yell out when needed. “Asinine creatures!” often flew out of her lips while driving.

In her mind, bad language was a poor reflection upon the speaker and did more harm than good. She was right. I had first-hand experience when I worked for a vice president of a major corporation.

I had only started a week before and this gentleman had arrive in a tornado of activity. He planted himself in his office with the door between our work spaces open and proceeded to get on the phone. Every other word out of his mouth was the f-bomb. I was shocked and uncomfortable having to listen to that kind of language. His volume level made it hard to avoid hearing.

The next day, on the advice of my husband, I shut the door when he started in. After he concluded his phone call. He came out and asked me why I had closed the door. I was fully expecting a colorful dressing down. I told him that I didn’t feel I needed to be exposed to that kind of language. From then on, he shut the door – but he didn’t clean up his language.

The problem was, his direct reports started using the same language in their dealings with others. Now, I never really knew who they were talking to, but I can’t help thinking that speaking that way to anyone was a poor way to communicate.

I’m no angel, and there are times when words come out of my mouth that would put many a teenager to shame. (Sorry, Mom!) It is usually when I’m alone driving in traffic with the windows rolled up.

In business writing, there is absolutely no situation in which profanity is appropriate. Fiction is another story, but profanity should be used with a purpose, not to just throw shocking words at people.

People point to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin who helped demystify curse words. They think people like these two comedians gave everyone permission to curse with abandon. People ignore that they used such words in their routines with a purpose.

By using profanity as a vocabulary crutch, people miss out on the satisfaction of dressing someone down with words they may not quite understand. Try calling someone an asinine creature sometime; they might not be sure if it’s an insult.