N=No Second Cousins (Feb 15)

The right word is like a white suit – a perfect fit for Twain // Shutterstock

Sometimes you can’t find the right word and it would make all the difference. It’s like having the wrong size battery in your flashlight: what doesn’t fit will not illuminate.

Mark Twain, in the midst of an essay deploring the stories of James Fenimore Cooper, offered a series of rules for writing that include: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

One way you can tell you are using a second cousin is that you stick a qualifier in front of it. More and more we are seeing these qualified constructions as media outlets lay off the editors who normally would snuff them.

Here are some examples of “qualifier+ second cousin” followed by a better word choice, though usage will depend on context:

Extremely surprised -> shocked

Quite irritated -> annoyed

A bit sad -> subdued/sober

Very excited -> thrilled

Very disappointed -> crestfallen

Somewhat disappointed -> disappointed

(Sometimes the solution is to keep the word and lose the qualifier.)

These are easy fixes. In the old days you could poke around in the pages of your faded copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, but now online thesauruses offer answers in a flash.

LEARN: Read Twain’s essay on “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” here.

USE: Pick the right word for these three passages:

1. From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the [xxx] was complete.”

2. From a haiku by the 17th-century master Matsuo Basho: “an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the [xxx] of water”.

3. Emperor Commodus in Gladiator: It [xxxs] me. I’m terribly [xxx’ed[.”

Answers posted tomorrow – at the bottom of ‘O’


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: