Diction, Changing Phrasing, and Political Correctness: Guiding Word Choices and Examples
Diction, changing terminology and phrasing, and “political correctness”—these all challenge a writer and editor. Some word choices are made because they are more precise, some because a newer phrase brings with it a new and appropriate nuance, some because a different word choice would smack of insensitivity, some… well the list goes on. What guides word choices—or should, in my opinion—is a combination of what is precise, what is clear and appropriate for the reader and context, and what serves the writer’s goals with the writing.
Here are some examples and my commentary:
- “Limited vision distance” —This was seen on a yellow caution sign at a road side. It takes the intention of a more-familiar sign “blind hill” and makes it longer and less clear. Yes, perhaps what could be seen was lowered (“limited”) rather than reduced to nothing, and yes, hills are not animate, and yes, it wasn’t so much a hill as a rise, but drivers traveling at 50 miles an hour would find “Limited vision distance” hard to read, make sense of, and act upon.
- First Nations names—In Canada, many First Nations and members of First Nations are deciding that a more traditional name of their people is how they would like to self-identify rather than with names that might have been transcribed or imposed by outsiders. This raises the question of what readers will understand now and what readers will understand in the future. For a recent project I worked on, one reviewer commented that “‘Nootka’ is easier; the readers know it so use the old, more familiar term…” Sorry, I disagree in the circumstances. The publication was educational and one goal was to provide current, updated information about First Nations peoples who live on the west coast of Canada. There’s no better place to address how First Nations peoples of the region self-identify now than here. Readers can learn two or more terms for a nation and what is preferred.
Other examples—please send them and I’ll add my own.