Ironic, Iconic & 11 Other Words That Need Your Attention

By Mike Feinsilber

Mark Twain had it right when he said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. When you’re writing, the wrong word can undercut the entire undertaking. That’s why writers can spend an hour staring at the keyboard, even when they know what they want to say. They want to say it right. Not just accurately, but in words that match the mood, capture the situation. “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it,” said  Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century French novelist. He was known as a great stylist. Some day I’d like to read him.

Let James Thurber have his say on this point: “I never quite know when I’m not writing,” he told George Plimpton and Max Steele in an interview published in the Paris Review in 1955. “Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’”

You can think, you can research, you can sleep on it, you can play with your idea, you can walk in circles, you can resharpen the pencils. But sooner or later, you’ve got to write. Words are what we’re left with. Might as well pick the right ones.

The right word, of course, depends on the other words. “Ain’t” ain’t right in most cases. (Although I’ll gladly join a crusade for giving it legitimacy.)  In other circumstances, only “ain’t” will do, no matter what spellcheck says. All depends on context.

So I’ve been collecting words that strike me as just about never the right ones. Some are tired, hackneyed. Some insult the reader or his ear.  Some are pompous. Here are members of my collection that are either lightning or lightning bugs, butter or butterflies.  These words, I declare, ain’t never appropriate. (Your are invited, in the comment section below, to nominate words or terms that strike you as forever inappropriate. Or to disagree.)

*person that. It’s things that, person who. Even a crummy person deserves to be who. The guy who writes “persons that” has a low opinion of his fellow persons.

*officially. I’ve railed against this pretentious word before, but this time it is official. “Officially” rarely is needed, rarely adds anything. Who made it official, ask yourself. Here’s the test: if you can write the sentence without “officially,” and nothing changes in the sentence, write it without “officially.”

*posh. Cute once, cute no more. “Posh” is the great despoiler of travel writing.

*revisit. As in reconsider. Try “reconsider” instead.

*prompting & sparking. Could the repetition of these words in newspaper headlines and leads account for the troubles newspapers are having? Maybe not, but they invite the reader to read elsewhere.

*grow. Bill Clinton did many commendable things but promising to grow the economy wasn’t among them. The verb lingers, tired, deserving a rest.

*signature. As in “this was his signature achievement.” Maybe, maybe not. Case in point: In a profile the conservative writer Michael Goldfarb on the front page of the New York Times, February 24, 2013: “His signature political attack can best be described as gleeful evisceration…”

*poster child. Try embodiment or archetype. The poster child made her appearance in 1946, in a wheelchair, fighting TB through the March of Dimes. Let her be. Case in point: Robert Kagan and Michelle Dunne, co-chairmen of the Working Group on Egypt in an oped piece in the Washington Post, February 20, 2013: “The most populous Arab country, poster child of the Arab Spring, faces a looming economic crisis.”

*the face of. If someone doesn’t qualify as a poster child, he can always be called the face of. As in: “Michael Bloomberg is the face of open-handed philanthropy.”

*iconic. Journalism in Washington has more icons than the Roman Catholic Church. What’s needed now are editors who are iconoclasts. Some words we love to death.

*ironically. Most times writers mean “coincidentally” or “improbably.” Those are better choices, says my dictionary, The American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th Edition.

*dramatic. Usually used when what it describes ain’t. A one-tenth of one percent increase in the birth rate might be significant. But is it dramatic?

Find another way of saying it and your writing is bright, charming, fun and vigorous. Mark Twain might be pleased.


  1. Surreal. OK, it’s probably said more often than written, but it’s still one of my pet hates. No, it wasn’t surreal. Unexpected or unusual, perhaps. Even shocking, astonishing or extraordinary. But it wasn’t, I repeat WAS NOT surreal!

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