CHOOSE THE FAMILIAR DEFINITION

I noticed that mother began to materialize around the edges of the copper vessel.

Did that sentence startle you? Confuse you? Baffle you? You might be surprised to know that it is a completely legitimate and accurate statement. It’s not unusual for mother to appear when someone is making alcoholic beverages, and it has nothing to do with the personal habits of the woman who brought you into this world.

“Mother,” you see, also refers to the slime that forms on the top of alcoholic beverages during the fermentation process. It’s such an obscure term that you won’t find it in most dictionaries, but I used it correctly here.

The point I hope to make with that example is that many words in the English language have multiple meanings. But when you use one of the more obscure meanings, you confuse your readers. The sharpest writer I ever worked for drummed that point into my head. I’d use a word and he’d cross it out. I’d defend my choice and he’d snap, “It’s the second definition. If you’re not using the first definition of a word, don’t use it!” I fought him for years, but eventually came to realize that he was right.

After all, if I’d written “I noticed that slime began to form around the edges of the pot,” you wouldn’t have needed an explanation of what I was trying to say.

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