Choose your words carefully

rogersgeorge on October 27th, 2011

One characteristic of good writing, at least good expository writing, is that your reader effortlessly knows what you mean. That means you don’t want to be ambiguous. You want to pick the exact right word that has the exactly correct meaning. That’s the kind of writing I usually write about.

If you’re into poetry or riddles, the heart of your writing might be to play with these ambiguities, be deliberately ambiguous. A well-handled ambiguity creates an enigma. The reader of your statement is puzzled until you dispel the ambiguity with the answer to your riddle, and consternation turns into delight. That’s why we like riddles. I used the word “statement” on purpose, by the way. Nowadays riddles are often framed as questions, but they used to be statements. The nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty was a riddle.

This is old enough that I think it's in the public domain

In the book of Judges, Samson’s statement about the lion carcass with the honeycomb inside was a riddle in statement form (see Judges 14:14).

I had always pictured the comb inside the mummified chest cavity

Here’s another statement-riddle that plays on the choice of a certain word in the article I want to quote later.

As I looked over Castor’s wall,
I heard a man let out a squall.
His beard was meat, his mouth was horn.
Such a man was never born.

You’re supposed to figure out who this ‘man’ is, like you were supposed to figure out that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, except every nursery book I’ve ever seen was so copiously illustrated that most kids never even realize the poem was a riddle in the first place.

That’s enough for one lesson, class. I’ll continue in the next lesson.

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