The psychology of word choice + rhetorical context

A couple of days ago, Gabe Doyle wrote an enlightening explanation of the psychology behind word choice. A writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost to the writer is significant enough to trump speed. Rhetorical context wins every time!

Here’s an example from my tutorial on word choice. (You can read another one based on dubious advice from Grammar Girl in Doyle’s post.) The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the word “peril.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. Doyle’s blog, Motivated Grammar, is a terrific resource for those who want to learn about language use from someone with credentials (he’s a doctoral candidate in linguistics at UC San Diego) — rather than a self-proclaimed expert based on misinformation learned in elementary school or from Strunk and White. The blog’s purpose as described by him:

A lot of people make claims about what “good English” is.  Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight.  Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn’t.

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