The French have a phrase for it: le mot juste, “the right word.”
It’s attributed to Gustave Flaubert—yeah, the Madame Bovary guy—who is said to have believed the essence of good writing consists of tracking down the singular right word for the occasion.
Well, what works for the 19th century realist novel also works for content writing. Look, when writing material for your professional website, you should always have three goals in mind. First, what you write should always aspire to give your reader new and useful information. Second, your writing should build trust in your business. Third, you should inspire the reader to take action that will bring him closer to becoming your organization’s client or customer.
Using exactly the right diction means you’re writing clearly, but it also triggers an emotional response in the reader that will move him toward fulfilling all three goals. And that’s a great thing.
Ah, but what happens when you can’t find that elusive “right word”?
The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Content Writing Mistakes
For some reason, in recent weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of diction and usage errors on doctor, lawyer, and small business websites. Everyone is shooting at the target, but most people are missing the bull’s-eye. And even though I’ve been reading webpages produced by our competitors, I’m not going to say the fault is hack writing or writers who are not fluent in English. Most of the time, the text is perfectly serviceable…and then you encounter one or two words that are jarring because they are out of place.
What are some of the reasons why we see sloppy usage errors?
- Right denotation, wrong connotation. Two words may share the same general meaning (“denotation”), while having different shades of emotional meaning (“connotation”). The thesaurus may group together all words with a specific denotation, but that doesn’t mean the words handicapped, crippled, and disabled, for example, can freely substitute for one another.
- Homophones. These are words that sound alike but have different meanings. Some of these errors can be attributed to the rise of voice-to-text software and poor proofreading, for those writers who have taken to dictating rather than typing their content.
- Grammar errors. I’ve noticed a rise in using the right word—or its cognate—as the wrong part of speech: an adjective when a verb is required, for instance.
- Simple malapropisms. A malapropism occurs when someone swaps out a similar-sounding word for the correct one; the result is often unintentionally humorous. The late Yogi Berra was famous for malapropisms, such as “Texas has a lot of electrical votes” (rather than “electoral votes”).
You want some examples? Sure, I’m glad to oblige. These are all paraphrases of mistakes I’ve encountered over the last few months:
- “While the truck accident made headlines because of Tracey Morgan’s notoriety, drowsy driving crashes are a sadly common occurrence on our roadways.” Connotation error. Tracey Morgan is famous or celebrated as a comic actor, rather than notorious; the latter word suggests “being well-known for bad actions.”
- “The enormity of a big-rig truck guarantees there will be major injuries after a collision with a smaller vehicle.” Another connotation error. The right word, enormousness, refers merely to large size or scope. Enormity, on the other hand, has a negative connotation, meaning great evil or wickedness.
- “How Changes in Florida Workers’ Compensation Rules May Effect You.” Homophone error. Almost always, effect is a noun and affect—the correct word for this headline—a verb.
- “A discrete hearing aid can significantly improve your ability to follow conversations and participate in everyday life.” Homophone error. Discreet means “subtle or reserved.” It’s not the same as discrete, which means “distinct, separate, or unrelated.”
- “If you and your spouse cannot work out the details cooperatively, then your divorce case will precede to court.” It’s a homophone error to mix up proceed and precede.
- “With proper attention to details, you can still be the dominate firm in your market.” Grammar error. The right word is the adjective dominant, not the verb dominate.
- “An expert witness is a person who can speak to the jury with authority to help support some aspect of your injury claim; for example, an imminent economist could provide testimony about your income loss due to your disability.” Malapropism. Imminent means “impending; soon to happen”; the right word here would be eminent, “renowned or distinguished.”
- “If you are pulled over for a driving infraction, don’t aggravate the police officer by belligerent behavior.” A common malapropism. Aggravate means to make something worse; one might aggravate a broken toe or other injury. The word doesn’t apply to people, just things: you can aggravate a situation, but not a cop. Writers who misuse aggravate often would do better to use irritate or aggrieve instead.
- “The witness seemed to infer that she knew more about Mr. Hastings than she said in the deposition.” Substituting infer for imply is another common malapropism.
- “We don’t want to taunt our credentials excessively, but one look at our testimonials page will show you how much our clients appreciate our work.” Malapropism: the right word is tout, not taunt.
What’s the Good Word?
You might wonder if anyone is hurt when the content writer on your staff slips up a little. Yes: your business is hurt.
If you keep using almost the right word, then some readers will decide that your business is almost the right one to serve their needs…but they will pass you by. They want someone who gets things right the first time, and you don’t seem to fit that description. Your readers never make the conversion to becoming contacts, let alone clients.
The best defense against making an embarrassing usage error is the same recommendation all your writing teachers have told you: proofread your work. And then—because you can’t always recognize your own mistakes—have someone else also read through it again. This will not catch every error, but it will trap most of them.
Foster Web Marketing isn’t merely one of the nation’s top marketing software and website design companies. It’s also a content factory. Our wordsmiths and editors produce made-to-order books, reports, blogs, feature articles, and other promotional material to your specific needs and schedule. Finding the right words and bolting them onto a sentence? That’s our job! To learn more about what our team can do for you, call 888-886-0939 today.