The Importance of Having the "Right" Word

Many of my clients feel a certain frustration because they don’t have enough words to be precise and exact in conveying their message in English. It’s true that the more words we have, the more choice and nuance we can bring to what we want to say. However, it is a mistake to think that there is a right word for every situation and that every native speaker would choose that word over another. How often do we misunderstand each other in our own language, because we think that our interlocutor knows what we mean when we use a particular word?

A good example of this is when I speak with my teenage daughter who sometimes complains that people have no respect. On careful investigation, it turns out that her definition of respect is very different from mine! The same goes for so many words, which are often so overused that they end up being meaningless. I encourage my clients to choose the words that they use in English based on what resonates for them and what the words evoke for them. I also encourage them to explain what they mean when they use a word. For example, “I’m passionate about paragliding” conveys a piece of information, but what that passion really is for the person is not communicated. If the person adds, “what I mean by passion is that it sets me free, it gives me the most wonderful feeling of peace and excitement at the same time”, we begin to understand better the nature of the person’s experience.

Learning vocabulary is about collecting powerful, evocative words and expressions that capture a your unique experience. It is about making English words your own so that you feel empowered when you use them and can explain what they mean in a way that the dictionary does not. One student loved the word ‘upright’ as used by a Buddhist master whose teachings were an inspiration to him. We explored the quality of this word which contains the idea of self-respect, dignity and strength without rigidity. He was able to then explain how he wanted to have this quality in his English and what grammatical structures and language features would help him.

So, having the ‘right’ word is not a question of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but more a question of having the words that resonate most strongly with your experience and explaining what you mean by them. This is called conversational intelligence and it is part of creating meaning as you interact with another person and together try to understand each other. Sometimes having less words can actually be an advantage. I coached one man who used the metaphor of packing his mountain rucksack. He was a passionate mountaineer and he knew that it was important to take enough gear but not too much, so as to lighten his load. We explored together what having just enough words in English would be like and how his communication could be lighter and freer with fewer words used more carefully and deliberately.

By all means learn lists of vocabulary from vocabulary books, but make them your own by using them to describe your unique experiences and don’t hesitate to select the ones that are most meaningful to you and that give you a sense of empowerment when you use them.


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