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Vocabulary: Choosing the best word

How do you find the best word to use? Where do you start? This post explains how to always choose the right word.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. - Mark Twain

Choosing the best word

Say you want to expand your vocabulary, but you're not sure how. For example, consider the sentence below:
Interestingly, there is a big difference between the concerns of many citizens and the issues discussed by the majority of politicians.
I've put the word difference  in bold because that's the word I want to change. Is it really the best one to use? Where do I go to find other similar words?

Finding Synonyms

I went to the Thesaurus and looked up difference. I found two words I've seen before, but I'm not sure if they fit: discrepancy and divergence. So now, I should look up their definitions and example sentences.

Match the word to its definition (A-C).

  • difference
  • discrepancy
  • divergence

A. the process or fact of separating or becoming different 
B. a difference between two or more things that should be the same 
C. the way in which two people or things are not like each other

Click on the links above to discover the answers. 

Read the example sentences, and then see if you can complete the missing words below. 

Example sentences

He was studying the complex similarities and differences between humans and animals.

How do you explain the apparent discrepancies between the money and the receipts?

The divergence between the incomes of the rich and the poor​ countries seems to be increasing.

Complete the sentences below using difference, discrepancy, or divergence.

A. What are the reasons for the ______________ between girls' and boys' performance in school?

B. She failed to notice the ______________ between the name on the check and the name on the driving license.

C. Recently published statistics show a __________________ from previous ​trends.

D. There are no significant _______________ between the education systems of the two countries.

Check Answers

Which collocation list belongs to which word? (difference, discrepancy, divergence).

A collocation is a word pairing that naturally goes together. For example,

  • I took the test. 
  • I made the bed.

Why do we say "took" a test? Does it really mean you grabbed the test and moved it somewhere else?
Why do we say "made" the bed? Does it really mean you created a new bed?

So, collocations are merely word pairings that have found their way together. Improving collocations is one of the best ways to improve your writing and speaking fluency and vocabulary.

Which collocation list goes with difference? Which collocation list goes with discrepancy?

big, broad, considerable, dramatic, enormous, great, huge, large, major, profound, radical, real, sharp, substantial, vast, wide
glaring, great, huge, large, major, marked, material, serious, substantial, wide |
minor, slight, small | apparent

Check Answers

Which word would you now choose for the sentence?

For me, I would choose discrepancy because I expect politicians to discuss issues that citizens are concerned about. Since the word "big"doesn't collocate with discrepancy, I would also change that word to "glaring". So the sentence would read,
Interestingly, there is a glaring discrepancy between the concerns of many citizens and the issues discussed by the majority of politicians.
Others might choose divergence because they believe that politicians in the past discussed issues that were important to citizens, but they do not discuss them anymore.

And lastly, others might keep difference because they don't expect politicians to discuss issues that are important to citizens and they think this has always been the case.

So, you can see by changing that one word, we communicate very different meanings, and that's why we want to improve our vocabulary and choose the right word. We want to tell people exactly what we mean.

Which word would you use?

Final remarks

If you don't know where to find reputable English dictionaries or other vocabulary resources, this Webquest will give you a place to start. 

Feel free to leave your comments and questions in the space below! Cheers. 


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