Dual Definitions

Many words that are written the same have two definitions.  Sometimes these are wildly different, like lead (please follow) and lead (a metal), and in writing the reader figures out which you mean by context.

When the two definitions are similar, things gets tricky.  This can even lead to major misunderstandings.  Take the word “theory,” for example.  Two definitions, similar in concept but different enough to be a problem.  One definition is commonly used, the one that means more than a guess but less than a fact.  “He didn’t know who had killed the girl, but he had a theory.”  The other definition is very scientific in nature.  From Merriam-Webster: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.”  This second version, to scientists, implies a large concept that has been supported by numerous studies and is basically accepted as fact.  This is used in examples like “theory of relativity,” “heliocentric theory of the solar system,” “atomic theory,” and “theory of evolution.”

Ah, now you understand where the misunderstanding comes in.  That word theory is a big reason why there is so much debate about something that has been considered the driving concept of biology for decades.

Okay, let’s get to the writing-related concept here.  Debating evolution is not my goal today; instead it is simply an example that we, as authors, can take as a warning.

Part of being a good author is having a large vocabulary.  You have to be careful with your word use, though, when things have similar but not identical meanings.  Using a word in the wrong way (especially if it is related to a specific field or career) can not only irritate a reader, you can actually lose people who were enjoying your book.

If you’re not 100% sure about the use of a word, take 5 seconds to look it up.  It will help avoid irritating your readers, and it might even win you some extra respect from those who know what you’re talking about!

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