Choice of words choice of words

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Helpful book for everyone who aspires to

correct the everyday errors of speaking and writing


John Hendricks Bechtel




"We should be as careful of our words as of our actions."-- CICERO.

Homer, in all probability, knew no rules of rhetoric, and was not tortured with the consideration of grammatical construction, and yet his verse will endure through time. If everybody possessed the genius of Homer, rules and cautions in writing would be unnecessary.

To-day all men speak, and most men write, but it is observed that those who most closely follow Homer's method of writing without rules are most unlike Homer in the results. The ancient bard was a law unto himself; we need rules for our guidance.

Rules of writing are the outgrowth of the study of the characteristics and qualities of style which distinguish the best writers from those of inferior skill and ability. Grammarians and rhetoricians, according to their several lines of investigation, set forth the laws and principles governing speech, and formulate rules whereby we may follow the true, and avoid the false.

Grammar and rhetoric, as too often presented in the schools, are such uninviting studies that when school-days are ended, the books are laid aside, and are rarely consulted afterward. The custom of formally burning the text-books after the final examinations-- a custom that prevails in some institutions-- is but an emphatic method of showing how the students regard the subjects treated in the books.

If all the rules and principles had been thoroughly mastered, the huge bonfire of text-books in grammar and rhetoric might be regarded a fitting celebration of the students' victory over the difficulties of "English undefiled." But too often these rules are merely memorized by the student for the purpose of recitation, and are not engrafted upon his everyday habit of speech. They are, therefore, soon forgotten, and the principles involved are subject to daily violation.

Hence arises the need of books like SLIPS OF SPEECH, in which the common faults of speakers and writers are pointed out, and the correct use of words shown. Brief and informal in treatment, they will be read and consulted when the more voluminous text-books will be left untouched.

The copious index appended to this volume will afford a ready reference to the many subjects discussed, and will contribute greatly to the convenience and permanent value of the book.



Taste is a universal gift. It has been found in some degree in all nations, races, and ages. It is shown by the savage in his love of personal decoration; by the civilized man in his love of art.

But while it is thus universal, it is as different among men as their faces, complexions, characters, or languages. Even among people of the same nation, it is as different as the degrees of society. The same individual at different periods of life, shows this variableness of taste.

These diversities of taste imply a susceptibility to improvement. Good taste in writing forms no exception to the rule. While it seems to require some basis in nature, no degree of inborn aptitude will compensate for the lack of careful training.

To give his natural taste firmness and fineness a writer needs to read the best literature, not merely so as to know it, but so as to feel the beauty, the fitness, the charm, the strength, the delicacy of a well-chosen word.

The study of the proper arrangement and the most effective expression of our thoughts prompts us to think more accurately. So close is the connection between the thought and its expression that looseness of style in speaking and writing may nearly always be traced to indistinctness and feebleness in the grasp of the subject. No degree of polish in expression will compensate for inadequacy of knowledge. But with the fullest information upon any subject, there is still room for the highest exercise of judgment and good sense in the proper choice and arrangement of the thoughts, and of the words with which to express them.

The concurrent testimony of those best qualified to render a decision, has determined what authors reflect the finest literary taste, and these writers should be carefully studied by all who aspire to elegance, accuracy, and strength in literary expression.

Fine Writing

Never hesitate to call a spade a spade. One of the most frequent violations of good taste consists in the effort to dress a common subject in high-sounding language. The ass in the fable showed his stupidity when he put on the lion's skin and expected the other animals to declare him to be the king of beasts. The distinction of a subject lies in its own inherent character, and no pompous parade of words will serve to exalt a commonplace theme.

Poetic Terms

In the expression of homely ideas and the discussion of affairs of every-day life, avoid such poetic forms as o'er for over, ne'er for never, 'mid for amid, e'en for even, 'gan for began, 'twixt for betwixt, 'neath for beneath, list for listen, oft for often, morn for morning, eve for evening, e'er for ever, ere for before, 'tis for it is, 'twas for it was.

In all prose composition, avoid such poetic forms as swain, wight, mead, brake, dingle, dell, zephyr.

Foreign Words

The unrestrained use of foreign words, whether from the ancient or from the modern languages, savors of pedantry and affectation. The ripest scholars, in speaking and writing English, make least use of foreign words or phrases. Persons who indulge in their use incur the risk of being charged with a desire to exhibit their linguistic attainments.

On the other hand, occasions arise when the use of words from a foreign tongue by one who is thoroughly familiar with them, will add both grace and exactness to his style.

Rarely use a foreign term when your meaning can be as well expressed in English. Instead of blase, use surfeited, or wearied; for cortege use procession for couleur de rose, rose-color; for dejeuner, breakfast; for employe, employee; for en route, on the way; for entre nous, between ourselves; for fait accompli, an accomplished fact; for in toto, wholly, entirely; for penchant, inclination; for raison d'etre, reason for existence; for recherche, choice, refined; for role, part; for soiree dansante, an evening dancing party; for sub rosa, secretly, etc.

The following incident from the Detroit Free Press is in point:

The gentleman from the West pulled his chair up to the hotel table, tucked his napkin under his chin, picked up the bill-of-fare and began to study it intently. Everything was in restaurant French, and he didn't like it.

"Here, waiter," he said, sternly, "there's nothing on this I want."

"Ain't there nothin' else you would like for dinner, sir?" inquired the waiter, politely.

"Have you got any sine qua non?"

The waiter gasped.

"No, sir," he replied.

"Got any bon mots?"

"N-- no, sir."

"Got any semper idem?"

"No, sir, we hain't."

"Got any jeu d'esprits?"

"No, sir; not a one."

"Got any tempus fugit?"

"I reckon not, sir."

"Got any soiree dansante?"

"No, sir."

The waiter was edging off.

"Got any sine die?"

"We hain't, sir."

"Got any e pluribus unum?"

The waiter's face showed some sign of intelligence.

"Seems like I heard ob dat, sir," and he rushed out to the kitchen, only to return empty-handed.

"We ain't got none, sir," he said, in a tone of disappointment.

"Got any mal de mer?"

"N-- no, sir."

The waiter was going to pieces fast.

The gentleman from the West, was as serene as a May morning.

"Got any vice versa?" he inquired again.

The waiter could only shake his head.

"No? Well, maybe you've got some bacon and cabbage, and a corn dodger?"

"'Deed we have, sir," exclaimed the waiter, in a tone of the utmost relief, and he fairly flew out to the kitchen.

Trite Expressions

Words and phrases which may once have been striking and effective, or witty and felicitous, but which have become worn out by oft-repeated use, should be avoided. The following hackneyed phrases will serve to illustrate: "The staff of life," "gave up the ship," "counterfeit presentment," "the hymeneal altar," "bold as a lion," "throw cold water upon," "the rose upon the cheek," "lords of creation," "the weaker sex," "the better half," "the rising generation," "tripping the light fantastic toe," "the cup that cheers but does not inebriate," "in the arms of Morpheus," "the debt of nature," "the bourne whence no traveler returns," "to shuffle off this mortal coil," "the devouring element," "a brow of alabaster."

Pet Words

Avoid pet words, whether individual, provincial, or national in their use. Few persons are entirely free from the overuse of certain words. Young people largely employ such words as delightful, delicious, exquisite, and other expressive adjectives, which constitute a kind of society slang.

Overworked Expressions

Words and phrases are often taken up by writers and speakers, repeated, and again taken up by others, and thus their use enlarges in ever-widening circles until the expressions become threadbare. Drop them before they have reached that state. Function, environment, trend, the masses, to be in touch with, to voice the sentiments of-- these are enough to illustrate the kind of words referred to.

Very Vulgar Vulgarisms

No one who has any regard for purity of diction and the proprieties of cultivated society will be guilty of the use of such expressions as yaller for yellow, feller for fellow, kittle for kettle, kiver for cover, ingons for onions, cowcumbers for cucumbers, sparrowgrass for asparagus, yarbs for herbs, taters for potatoes, tomats for tomatoes, bile for boil, hain't for ain't or isn't, het for heated, kned for kneaded, sot for sat or set, teeny for tiny, fooling you for deceiving you, them for those, shut up for be quiet, or be still, or cease speaking, went back on me for deceived me or took advantage of me, a power of people for a great many people, a power of money for great wealth, a heap of houses for many houses, lots of books for many books, lots of corn for much corn or large quantities of corn, gents for gentlemen, and many others of a similar character.



Our American writers evince much variety in their graces of diction, but in the accurate choice of words James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant stand out conspicuous above the rest. So careful and persistent was the latter, that during the time that he was editor of The Evening Post, of New York City, he required the various writers upon that paper to avoid the use of a long list of words and expressions which he had prepared for them, and which were commonly employed by other papers. This list was not only used, but enlarged by his successors.

Strive to cultivate the habit of observing words; trace their delicate shades of meaning as employed by the most polished writers; note their suggestiveness; mark the accuracy with which they are chosen. In this way your mind will be kept on the alert to discover the beauties as well as the blemishes of all the thought pictures that are presented, and your vocabulary will be greatly enlarged and enriched.


Above, and over, use more than.
Artiste, use artist.
Beat, use defeat.
Bagging, use capturing.
Balance, use remainder.
Banquet, use dinner or supper.
Casket, use coffin.
Claimed, use asserted.
Commence, use begin.
Cortege, use procession.
Cotemporary, use contemporary.
Couple, use two.
Darkey, use negro.
Day before yesterday, use the day before yesterday.
Decease, as a verb.
Democracy, applied to a political party.
Develop, use expose.
Devouring element, use fire.
Enacted, use acted.
Endorse, use approve.
En route.
Graduate, use is graduated.
Gents, use gentlemen.
House, use House of Representatives.
Inaugurate, use begin.
In our midst.
Item, use particle, extract, or paragraph.
Is being done, and all similar passive forms.
Jubilant, use rejoicing.
Juvenile, use boy.
Lady, use wife.
Last, use latest.
Lengthy, use long.
Leniency, use lenity.
Loan, or loaned, use lend or lent.
Majority, use most.
Mrs. President.
Mrs. Governor.
Mrs. General.
Mutual, use common.
Official, use officer.
On yesterday.
Over his signature.
Pants, use pantaloons.
Parties, use persons.
Partially, use partly.
Past two weeks, use last two weeks.
Portion, use part.
Posted, use informed.
Progress, use advance.
Quite, when prefixed to good, large, etc.
Raid, use attack.
Realized, use obtained.
Reliable, use trustworthy.
Rendition, use performance.
Repudiate, use reject or disown.
Retire, as an active verb.v Rev., use the Rev.
Role, use part.
Sensation, use noteworthy event.
Standpoint, use point of view.
Start, in the sense of setting out.
State, use say.
Talent, use talents or ability.
The deceased.
War, use dispute or disagreement.


Avoid bombastic language. Work for plain expressions rather than for the unusual. Use the simplest words that the subject will bear.

The following clipping, giving an account of the commencement exercises of a noted female college, strikingly illustrates what to avoid:

"Like some beacon-light upon a rock-bound coast against which the surges of the ocean unceasingly roll, and casting its beams far across the waters warning the mariner from the danger near, the college, like a Gibraltar, stands upon the high plains of learning, shedding its rays of knowledge, from the murmurings of the Atlantic to the whirlwinds of the Pacific, guiding womankind from the dark valley of ignorance, and wooing her with wisdom's lore, leads creation's fairest, purest, best into flowery dells where she can pluck the richest food of knowledge, and crowns her brow with a coronet of gems whose brilliancy can never grow dim: for they glisten with the purest thought, that seems as a spark struck from the mind of Deity. There is no need for the daughters of this community to seek colleges of distant climes whereat to be educated, for right here in their own city, God's paradise on earth, is situated a noble college, the bright diadem of that paradise, that has done more for the higher education of woman than any institution in our land."


An author's diction is pure when he uses such words only as belong to the idiom of the language. The only standard of purity is the practice of the best writers and speakers. A violation of purity is called a barbarism.

Unlike the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, the English is a living language, and, like all living organisms, manifests its life by taking in new material and casting off old waste continually. Science, art, and philosophy give rise to new ideas which, in turn, demand new words for their expression. Of these, some gain a permanent foothold, while others float awhile upon the currents of conversation and newspaper literature and then disappear.

Good usage is the only real authority in the choice of reputable words; and to determine, in every case, what good usage dictates, is not an easy matter. Authors, like words, must be tested by time before their forms of expression may become a law for others. Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, laid down a rule which, for point and brevity, has never been excelled:

"In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new or old;
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."


Campbell, in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, says that a word to be legitimate must have these three signs of authority:

  1. It must be reputable, or that of educated people, as opposed to that of the ignorant or vulgar.

  2. It must be national, as opposed to what is either local or technical.

  3. It must be present, as opposed to what is obsolete.

Any word that does not have these three qualities may, in general, be styled a barbarism.


Many foreign words, in process of time, become so thoroughly domesticated that their translation, or the use of an awkward equivalent, would be a greater mark of pedantry than the use of the foreign words. The proper use of such terms as fiat, palladium, cabal, quorum, omnibus, antique, artiste, coquette, ennui, physique, regime, tableau, amateur, cannot be censured on the ground of their foreign character.


Some writers affect an antiquated style by the introduction of such words as peradventure, perchance,

anon, behest, quoth, erewhile. The use of such words gives a strange sound to the sentence, and generally indicates that the writer is not thoroughly in earnest. The expression is lowered in tone and is made to sound fantastic.


A word should not be condemned because it is new. If it is really needed it will be welcomed, and soon find a permanent place. Shakespeare, Addison, and Johnson introduced many new words, to which their names afterward gave a sanction. Carlyle, Coleridge, Tennyson, and Browning have introduced or given currency to new words, and made strange ones familiar.

New words are objectionable when they are employed without proper authority. The chief sources of supply of the objectionable kind are the current slang of the street and the sensational newspaper. They are often the result of a desire to say things in such a manner as to reflect smartness upon the speaker, or to present things in a humorous or picturesque way. That they are frequently very effective cannot be gainsaid. Sometimes they are coined in the heat of political or social discussion, and, for a time, express what everybody is talking about; but it is impossible to tell whether they will live beyond the occasion that produced them. So long as their usage is doubtful it is safer not to employ them.


Slang is somewhat like chicken-pox or measles, very catching, and just as inevitable in its run; and very few of us escape it. It is severest, too, where the sanitary conditions are most favorable to its development. Where there is least thought and culture to counteract its influence slang words crowd out those of a more serious character, until, in time, the young and inexperienced speaker or writer is unable to distinguish between the counterfeit and the genuine.

While most persons condemn slang, there are very few who are entirely free from its use. It varies greatly in its degrees of coarseness or refinement, and adapts itself to all classes and conditions. Many know no other language, and we are unwillingly compelled to admit that while their speech is often ungrammatical and unrhetorical, it is generally clear, concise, and forcible.

Strive to acquire a vocabulary so large and to cultivate a taste so fine that when a slang expression rises to your mind you can use it if you think it best fits the occasion, or substitute something better in its place. Purity of diction is a garden of slow growth even under the most favorable conditions, and the unrestrained indulgence in slang is like scattering seeds of the vilest plants among the choicest flowers.


"This is an elegant day," "that is an elegant view," "Mary is awfully nice," "Jennie is dreadfully sweet," "Gertrude is delicious," and "Tom is perfectly splendid." The use of such extravagant phrases tends to weaken the significance of the words when legitimately employed.


Commercial terms are employed in the common language of everyday life to such an extent as to constitute a form of commercial slang. The following will serve for illustration; "The balance of the journey" for remainder, "he was well posted." for well informed, "I calculate he will come to-morrow" for believe or think, "I reckon he is your friend" for I suppose.


To materialize, to burglarize, to enthuse, to suicide, to wire, to jump upon, to sit upon, to take in, are a few of the many examples of slang that should be avoided.


A word that is used only in a limited part of the country is called a provincialism. It must be known and recognized for what it is worth, but not obtruded where it does not belong.

Whatever may be said of the faults of speech of the American people, it is doubtful if any other nation, whether it covers a large territory or is limited in area, speaks the language native to the country with the uniformity that we do. Yet, there are peculiarities that mark the expression of most of our people, even among the best informed. The words calculate, reckon, and guess are not the only words that betray the locality of the speaker. Any person who has been five hundred miles from home cannot fail to have observed words that were used differently from the way in which he had been accustomed to use them, and he probably heard terms of expression that seemed strange to him. In like manner, his own expressions sounded strange to those who heard him. That which distinguished his speech from theirs and theirs from his would, in large part, be covered by the word "provincialism."

Not only do we have local and sectional peculiarities of speech, but we may be said to have national mannerisms. Mr. Alexander Melville Bell, the eminent elocutionist, relates that some years ago when residing in Edinburgh, a stranger called to make some inquiries in regard to professional matters.

"I have called on you, sir, for the purpose of," etc.

"When did you cross the Atlantic?" I asked.

The stranger looked up with surprise amounting almost to consternation.

"How do you know that I have crossed the Atlantic?"

"Your manner of using the little word 'sir' is not heard in England or Scotland."

This gentleman, Mr. Bell says, was one of the most eminent teachers of elocution in America, and his speech was perfectly free from ordinary local coloring, in all but the one little element which had escaped observation.

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