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Chapter XIII. Accuracy In Diction

§ 61. Diction means choice of words. Accuracy in diction means choice of words with regard to their exact denotation, rather than with regard to their connotations - their emotional suggestions.

What shall we aim at in this chapter? We have more than a quarter of a million words to choose from, and it is obvious that we can speak of but few. Even a list of the goods sold in a single business would fill a book. It is clear that we cannot enter upon technical distinctions between the names of goods. Those must be learned in the office or the factory.

Shall we then aim at explaining the exact meanings of all the terms used in business law or in finance? That too is beyond us. Business law is itself nothing but one vast attempt to define and name technical distinctions which arise in the course of trade.

But perhaps we might gather together a considerable number of synonyms under such heads, without attempting to define them. The value of such bodies of words is that they refresh the memory of the writer. He has learned the meanings of them already, but it is useful to him to see the words grouped together. The mere presence of so many may help him to choose accurately.

$62. Such groupings have been made, and they are not without value. The difficulty is to get a really practical system of grouping. In his famous Thesaurus, Peter Roget (pronounce it as it is written, as if Roger ended in t instead of r) attempted a psychological grouping of English words. His psychology is out of date now, and practical men found it hard to use even in its day. Still, Roget's groupings are interesting. Let me give a few of them here, omitting some of the obsolete and unusual words.

Compact, contract, agreement, bargain, pact, stipulation, covenant, settlement, convention, charter, treaty, indenture.

Negotiation, transaction, bargaining, haggling, chaffering.

To treat negotiate bargain, stipulate, haggle, chaffer, stickle for, insist upon, make a point of.

Conditions, terms, articles, articles of agreement, clauses, provisions, obligation, ultimatum.

To make terms; to come to terms; to make it a condition; to bind. Conditional, provisional, guarded, fenced, hedged in.

Security, surety, guaranty, guarantee, warranty, bond, pledge, bail, parole. Stake, deposit, earnest. To give security, assure, accept, indorse, stamp.

Observance, performance, fulfilment, satisfaction, discharge. Non-observance, failure, neglect, laxity, infringement, infraction. Retraction, repudiation, nullification, protest, forfeiture. To observe, perform, keep, fulfil, discharge, keep faith with; make good [note that this has not the slang sense]; to redeem one's pledge. To break, violate, fail, neglect, omit, forfeit, retract, disregard, repudiate, nullify, elude, evade, go back from, be off.

Acquisition, obtainment, gaining, earning, gathering, gleaning, collecting, recovery. Loss, forfeiture, lapse. Gain, profit, benefit, emolument, the main chance, winnings, product, return, fruit, crop, harvest. To lose, incur loss, meet with loss, experience loss, miss, throw away, forfeit, allow to slip through the fingers.

Traffic, trade, commerce, dealing, business, negotiation, jobbing, brokery, commercial enterprise, speculation. A quid pro quo; borrowing of Peter to pay Paul; a blind bargain; a pig in a poke.

Purchase, emption, buying, purchasing, shopping. Sale, disposal, custom, dispose of, hawk, sell off, sell out. To put up to sale; to bring to the hammer; to turn into money.

These are a few specimens of Roget's groupings by association. His idea was to get the mind started in such a way that all the available phrases connected with a given matter would come forward from the slumbering depths of memory.

§63. But in the small space available to us it seems advisable to aim at something a little different. Roget is a book of reference, and he or some other good writer on synonyms - say Fernald or Fallows - should always be accessible to a writer. What we now need is a habit. "We want to increase our habit of insisting on the right word. There is a certain temper of mind which will not be content with the first word which comes to hand, but which pauses and reflects, and when the piece is done goes back and reflects again. I do not mean fastidiousness. Few letters would get written if every correspondent felt that he must be a Henry James. I mean a critical temper, an unwillingness to be slovenly in one's use of ordinary words.

Ordinary words. Exactly. There is a vast number of ordinary words which have to be used in business, and which are often ineffectively used. Let our list, then, consist of these. We must rule out purely literary words, for they are rarely used in commercial transactions. And we must rule out the great bulk of all the various technical vocabularies. With these provisos, we may proceed to construct some ordinary alphabetical lists of words which, let us hope, will prove to some degree useful. After each word I will give some brief hint, using very colloquial language, as to the proper use.

I. § 64. A Hundred Words Frequently Misused.

1. accept, except. It is only through a slip of the pen that these are confused.

2. acceptance, acceptation. Acceptance of an invitation to buy. Ordinary acceptation of a word.

3. affect, effect. To affect is to influence; it is a verb only. Effect is to accomplish, or the thing accomplished; it is either noun or verb. Persons who have trouble with these words should use effect as a noun only, as in, That produced or accomplished the desired effect.

4. after, afterward. Afterward is less used than it should be. In the well-known phrase "They lived happily ever after," substitute afterward and you have a good working example for future reference.

5. advise. Used to excess in letters for inform, and often used (wrongly) when the writer has no information to transmit.


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