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.

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The English language may be complex, but it offers users an expansive vocabulary. The benefit of that isn’t the ability to impress people with five-syllable words; it’s the remarkable precision that all those words make possible.

But English also has convoluted rules of phonetics. And one place people – including professional writers – tend to get tripped up is in the area of homonyms. If your memories of third grade have become a bit hazy, homonyms are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. More important, they have vastly different meanings – and your trusty spellchecker isn’t smart enough to recognize whether you’ve chosen the right one.

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John Kerry is a smart guy. No question about it. But the reason he’s still a Senator and not a President may have more to do with his choice of words than his political stances. At least that’s what Dr. Frank Luntz suggests, and I’m inclined to agree. Folks as dissimilar as Al Franken and Rudy Giuliani sing the good doctor’s praises.


In “Words That Work” (published by Hyperion and subtitled “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”), the conservative pollster and cable TV news pundit discusses the role word choices have played in everything from political campaigns to labor negotiations to traffic stops. “The most effective language clarifies rather than obscures,” he writes.



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What you say, what they see

One of my favorite stories about word choices is the one about the hospital that decided to open a walk-in clinic to compete with local freestanding clinics. The medical staffers who served on the hospital’s board chose to call it an “ambulatory” clinic, because to medical folks, “ambulatory” means that an individual is capable of walking.

The expected business didn’t materialize, and the hospital didn’t understand why consumers weren’t flocking through the doors. So they conducted a little bit of research and uncovered the reason: consumers saw the word “ambulatory” and assumed that it was intended for patients who arrived in ambulances.

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