Whenever I have time, I like to answer questions from readers in the form of a dialogue, in detail. I enjoy imparting advice, which is a tricky business at best - one never knows what another person is thinking. Besides, I really know very little. I cannot help much even if I wanted to. Therefore, I don't take my own advice seriously - and I'm sure it's all good advice too.
I find that knowledge (that I know very little and cannot help much) very comforting, even liberating and empowering. That knowledge enables me to say what I want to say. That knowledge enables me to actually speak out and have some fun.
The following, serving as an example, is a conversation via MSN with a reader whom I happen to know pretty well (Give-and-takes like this happen with readers who are strangers as well, in one form or another):
- Reader: What is the word to describe fierce competition?
- Me: Fierce. Fierce sounds good. Why bother with another?
- Reader: I know that. I just want to use another word. Give me another one, please.
- Me: Stiff? Stiff competition.
- Reader: No, not stiff. I'm looking for a bigger word. It's right here in my mind's eye but I can't for the moment recall it.
- Me: Ruthless? Ruthless competition?
- Reader: Ruthless? It's a good one. Ruthless competition sounds really cool. But it's not the one I'm looking for. I'm looking for a bigger word, one that begins with a "b". You know what I'm saying?
- Me: I don't. And I'm not sure I know of any bigger word to describe a competition. Nor am I sure that the bigger word is a better word. Often smaller words are a better word.
- Reader: The word I'm looking for is a better word. I read it somewhere - I liked it very much. It's a vivid word to describe really, really tough competition.
- Me: "Tough competition" is good enough. Fierce competition is good. Stiff competition is good also. Ruthless competition has to be good.
- Reader: But there's the other word. Come on. You're the expert. You must know.
- Me: This is the kind of logic that threatens to take all the fun away from our conversation. You call me an expert and that way you think you will put me under an obligation. That's why I never take the word "expert" seriously. I may be an expert in your eyes but that won't stop me from saying that I don't know. I don't know.
- Reader: But you're a columnist. You must help.
- Me: Must? Fortunately, I don't share that feeling of obligation either. I want to help. But I don't know if the help I give is the kind of help you're seeking.
- Reader: Come on, I need your advice. I trust your word.
- Me: I trust my word, too. That's why I'm careful with it, lol. My advice is, forget about the big word that you read once but cannot recall. Use tough, fierce, stiff or ruthless - any one of these will do for the moment. The fact that you fail to recall the big word suggests that you're not sure of it. It might not be the right word after all. Or you might use it inaccurately anyway. Use simple words instead, words you're sure of.
- Reader: Perhaps you're right. You think "fierce competition" is good enough?
Me: Yes. To avoid repetition, you may use tough, stiff, ruthless or even cutthroat if it gets really bad.
- Reader: Cutthroat? Gee, this is the word I've been looking for. Cutthroat, it's great.
- Me: Did you not say that your word begins with a "b"?
- Reader: I don't know. I don't remember if it begins with a "b" or a "c".
- Me: Could "breakneck" be that word?
- Reader: Yes, hurrah! That's the one! Breakneck! The sound of it! See, I know you know it.
- Me: You sure sound like you don't know what you're looking for. Be careful with cutthroat and breakneck. Make sure you use them right. These words should be reserved for extreme situations that, well, cut throats and break necks.