The Almost Right Word

Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

There’s a lot of truth to that.

One of my favorite love songs of all time is “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” by Elvis Presley.

It contains this line:

“Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things are meant to be.”

Well, some years later a group, UB40 did a cover of the song.  Leaving aside whether this song really is suited to being done as a Reggae tune, they changed that line.

“Like a river flows, gently to the sea…”


The original line is a metaphor for something inexorable.  That river is going to the sea.  Try to stop it, dam it, and it will rise until it goes over, around, or through whatever obstacle you put in its place.

There’s nothing “gently” about it.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’ character heaps scorn on the use of the word “very”.  A man is not very tired; he is exhausted.  A man is not very sad he is morose.  And so on.  In the vast majority of cases, the use of very with some adjective is a case of the almost right word.

Jokes about “paid by the word” aside, writers, in the effort to find and use the right words (as opposed to almost right words) often look to be concise.  Putting what they are saying in compact terms using less of the page, and thereby taking less of the readers time and letting them get to the next exciting scene (at least we hope it’s exciting) more quickly is considered a good thing.

Well, there’s some truth to that.  But the greatest good in writing is not conciseness.  It’s vividness.  How clearly, and how specifically, one paints the picture for the reader trumps even conciseness.  Let’s take some examples.

“Who do you think you are?” Tom asked sharply.

This gets the idea across.  But it’s kind of bland.  We could make a change, actually making the line a little shorter this way:

“Who do you think you are?” Tom snapped.

Yes, it’s a bit shorter but it really isn’t any more vivid.  By rearranging things a bit and using a bit longer structure however…

Tom rose from his seat, turned and pointed in my direction. “Who do you think you are?”

By using action rather than “he said/asked/snapped/whatever” I get the dual purpose of identifying the speaker and of painting the picture more clearly, more vividly in the reader’s mind.  I can turn it up a notch still, as follows:

Tom sprang from his seat, turned, and stabbed a finger at me. “Who do you think you are?”

“Sprang” and “stabbed” both invoke images of sudden, potentially violent action.  When added to the words Tom’s speaking, they make quite clear that he is angry.  We know this even though we have no idea what “I” did to make him angry.

I make no pretense that this is high prose.  It’s just a simple illustration that the right words, chosen for vividness and clarity, can go a long way toward turning simple, blase writing into something exciting for the reader, something that gets them turning the page to see what happens next.

And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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