In the choice of words for popular articles, three points are important: (1) only such words may be used as are familiar to the average person, (2) concrete terms make a much more definite impression than general ones, and (3) words that carry with them associated ideas and feelings are more effective than words that lack such intellectual and emotional connotation.
The rapid reader cannot stop to refer to the dictionary for words that he does not know. Although the special feature writer is limited to terms familiar to the average reader, he need not confine himself to commonplace, colloquial diction; most readers know the meaning of many more words than they themselves use in everyday conversation. In treating technical topics, it is often necessary to employ some unfamiliar terms, but these may readily be explained the first time they appear. Whenever the writer is in doubt as to whether or not his readers will understand a certain term, the safest course is to explain it or to substitute one that is sure to be understood.
Since most persons grasp concrete ideas more quickly than abstract ones, specific words should be given the preference in popular articles. To create concrete images must be the writer's constant aim. Instead of a general term like "walk," for example, he should select a specific, picture-making word such as hurry, dash, run, race, amble, stroll, stride, shuffle, shamble, limp, strut, stalk.
For the word "horse" he may substitute a definite term like sorrel, bay, percheron, nag, charger, steed, broncho, or pony. In narrative and descriptive writing particularly, it is necessary to use words that make pictures and that reproduce sounds and other sense impressions. In the effort to make his diction specific, however, the writer must guard against bizarre effects and an excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Verbs, quite as much as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, produce clear, vivid images when skillfully handled.
Some words carry with them associated ideas and emotions, while others do not.
The feelings and ideas thus associated with words constitute their emotional and intellectual connotation, as distinct from their logical meaning, or denotation.
The word "home," for example, denotes simply one's place of residence, but it connotes all the thoughts and feelings associated with one's own house and family circle. Such a word is said to have a rich emotional connotation because it arouses strong feeling. It also has a rich intellectual connotation since it calls up many associated images. Words and phrases that are peculiar to the Bible or to the church service carry with them mental images and emotions connected with religious worship. In a personality sketch of a spiritual leader, for example, such words and phrases would be particularly effective to create the atmosphere with which such a man might very appropriately be invested. Since homely, colloquial expressions have entirely different associations, they would be entirely out of keeping with the tone of such a sketch, unless the religious leader were an unconventional revivalist. A single word with the wrong connotation may seriously affect the tone of a paragraph. On the other hand, words and phrases rich in appropriate suggestion heighten immeasurably the effectiveness of an article.
The value of concrete words is shown in the following paragraphs taken from a newspaper article describing a gas attack: There was a faint green vapor, which swayed and hung under the lee of the raised parapet two hundred yards away. It increased in volume, and at last rose high enough to be caught by the wind. It strayed out in tattered yellowish streamers toward the English lines, half dissipating itself in twenty yards, until the steady outpour of the green smoke gave it reinforcement and it made headway. Then, creeping forward from tuft to tuft, and preceded by an acrid and parching whiff, the curling and tumbling vapor reached the English lines in a wall twenty feet high.
As the grayish cloud drifted over the parapet, there was a stifled call from some dozen men who had carelessly let their protectors drop.
The gas was terrible. A breath of it was like a wolf at the throat, like hot ashes in the windpipe.
The yellowish waves of gas became more greenish in color as fresh volumes poured out continually from the squat iron cylinders which had now been raised and placed outside the trenches by the Germans. The translucent flood flowed over the parapet, linking at once on the inner side and forming vague, gauzy pools and backwaters, in which men stood knee deep while the lighter gas was blown in their faces over the parapet.
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