On choosing the right word

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bill Sodemann left me another message recently. I've known Bill for a long time, as a news source. This goes back to the days when he ran for state Senate. He has never been shy about pointing out shortcomings in my reporting, and that's fine. It helps that he is always polite about it, no matter how impassioned he is about the particular issue.

Bill is now a member of the Janesville School Board, which I cover for The Gazette. His recent message was about a word I chose in describing his action at a school board meeting. I wrote that he "lectured" his fellow board members about challenges they will face with the school district’s 2013-14 budget.

As I recall, Bill was intent on reminding his fellow board members that although they would save money by making union employees pay more for health insurance, that extra money might not go very far in the face of competing demands for increased spending.

Bill sent an email the next morning after he read the paper. He sent it to his colleagues on the board and to the superintendent and copied it to me. He wrote, in part: “Reporter Frank Schultz described my presentation as ‘lecturing.’ Perhaps the word has different meanings to different people, but when I received a ‘lecture’ from my father when growing up, it felt more like a ‘scolding.’ If my tone or presentation in any way came across as ‘lecturing’ in that sense, please accept my sincere apologies, as that was not my goal.”

Superintendent Karen Schulte wrote a response before I could, suggesting that Sodemann was cautioning the board, not lecturing.

Then I responded: “I've heard some very good lectures in my time, and that was a good example of imparting knowledge and analysis about a very important issue. I did not mean to make it sound as though Bill was being pedantic, however, and perhaps I could have, as Dr. Schulte suggests, used ‘cautioned.’”

Bill replied in typical good humor: “Frank: I confess that I had to look up ‘pedantic.’ When doing so it also gave me the synonyms of punctilious - donnish – priggish. Then I had to look up those words as well! Thank you for broadening my vocabulary!”

The lesson here is that words carry different baggage in different contexts. I did not intend to say that Bill’s address to the board was punctilious or pedantic. What I meant was …

The lesson here is that if you have to say “what I meant was …” then you might have a problem.

I chose the wrong word. One of its meanings was what I meant. But “to lecture” also means to give an extended scolding, according to my “Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” and I should have thought of that.

One of this country’s greatest writers put it this way: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Thank you, Mark Twain.

Last updated: 9:20 am Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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