WORDS are powerful tools of communication. But in order for our words to accomplish a specific purpose, we need to choose them carefully. A word that may be appropriate on one occasion may have the wrong effect when circumstances are different. Improperly used, a colorful expression may become “a word causing pain.” Use of such expressions may simply be thoughtless, reflecting a lack of consideration. Some terms have a double meaning, one of which is offensive or belittling. (Prov. 12:18; 15:1) On the other hand, “the good word”—a word that imparts encouragement—brings joy to the heart of the one to whom it is spoken. (Prov. 12:25) Finding the right words requires effort, even for a wise person. Solomon, the Bible tells us, was aware of the need to search out “delightful words” and “correct words of truth.”—Eccl. 12:10.
In some languages, certain expressions are used when addressing those who are older or who occupy a position of authority, while different expressions are used when addressing one’s peers or those who are younger. Ignoring such courtesies is considered rude. It is also in poor taste to apply to oneself expressions of respect that local custom has reserved for others. In the matter of showing honor, the Bible sets a higher standard than what may be required by law or local custom. It urges Christians to “honor men of all sorts.” (1 Pet. 2:17) Those who do this from the heart speak to people of all ages in a manner that shows respect.
Of course, many people who are not true Christians use language that is rude and vulgar. They may feel that rough language adds emphasis to what they say. Or their use of it may simply reflect a woefully deficient vocabulary. If someone habitually used such speech before learning Jehovah’s ways, he may find that it is difficult to break the habit. Yet, it is possible. God’s spirit can help a person change speech patterns. However, the individual must also be willing to build a vocabulary filled with good words—words that impart what is favorable, words that build up—and then use these regularly.—Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8.
Language Easily Understood. A fundamental requirement of good speech is that it be easily understood. (1 Cor. 14:9) If the words that you use are not readily understood by your audience, you become to them like someone speaking a foreign tongue.
Some words have a specialized meaning among people in a particular profession. Such terms may be used by them every day. But your use of them in the wrong setting may hinder your ability to communicate. Furthermore, even though everyday vocabulary is used, if you get unnecessarily bogged down in details, your listeners may simply turn their minds to other matters.
A considerate speaker chooses words that are understandable even to those whose education is quite limited. In imitation of Jehovah, he shows consideration for “the lowly one.” (Job 34:19) If the speaker does find it necessary to use an unfamiliar word, then he should use it in connection with simple phrases that make the meaning clear.
Simple words that are well chosen convey ideas with great power. Short sentences and simple phrases are easy to grasp. They can be interspersed with some longer sentences so that the delivery does not become choppy. But for thoughts that you especially want your audience to remember, favor words that are simple and sentences that are concise.
Variety and Accuracy in Expression. There is no lack of good words. Rather than use the same expressions for every situation, employ a variety of words. Then your speech will be both colorful and meaningful. How can you enlarge your vocabulary?
When reading, mark any words that you do not fully understand, and look these up in a dictionary if one is available in your language. Select a few of those words, and make a conscious effort to use them when appropriate. Be careful to pronounce them correctly and to use them in a context where they will be readily understood and not simply attract attention. Enlarging your vocabulary will add variety to your speech. But there is need for caution—when a person mispronounces or misuses words, others may conclude that he really does not know what he is talking about.
Our purpose in enlarging our vocabulary is to inform, not to make an impression on our listeners. Complex speech and long words tend to draw attention to the speaker. Our desire should be to share valuable information and to make it interesting for those who hear it. Remember the Bible proverb: “The tongue of wise ones does good with knowledge.” (Prov. 15:2) The use of good words, fitting words that are easily understood, helps make our speech refreshing and stimulating rather than dull and uninteresting.
As you enlarge your vocabulary, give careful attention to using the right word. Two words may have similar but slightly different meanings for use under different circumstances. If you recognize this, you will be able to improve the clarity of your speech and avoid offending your listeners. Listen carefully to people who speak well. Some dictionaries list under each word both its synonyms (words of similar, though not identical, meaning) and its antonyms (words of somewhat opposite meaning). Thus you find not only varied expressions for the same idea but also different shades of meaning. This is very helpful when you are seeking the right word for a particular circumstance. Before adding a word to your vocabulary, be sure that you know what it means, how to pronounce it, and when it should be used.
Expressions that are specific convey a clearer picture than do those that are general. A speaker might say: “At that time, many people got sick.” Or he could say: “After World War I, within a few months, some 21,000,000 people died from the Spanish influenza.” What a difference it makes when the speaker states clearly what he means by “at that time,” “many people,” and “got sick”! Expressing yourself in this way calls for knowledge of facts related to your subject as well as a careful choice of words.
Use of the right word can also help you get to the point without being wordy. Wordiness tends to bury thoughts. Simplicity makes it easier for others to grasp and retain important facts. It helps convey accurate knowledge. The teaching of Jesus Christ was outstanding for its simplicity of language. Learn from him. (See the examples recorded at Matthew 5:3-12 and Mark 10:17-21.) Practice expressing yourself concisely in well-chosen words.
Words That Convey Vigor, Feeling, Color. As you enlarge your vocabulary, think not only of new words but also of words that have particular characteristics. Consider, for instance, verbs that express vigor; adjectives that convey color; and expressions that show warmth, have a note of kindness, or convey earnestness.
The Bible is filled with examples of such meaningful language. Through the prophet Amos, Jehovah urged: “Search for what is good, and not what is bad . . . Hate what is bad, and love what is good.” (Amos 5:14, 15) To King Saul, the prophet Samuel declared: “Jehovah has ripped away the royal rule of Israel from off you today.” (1 Sam. 15:28) When speaking to Ezekiel, Jehovah used language that is hard to forget, saying: “All those of the house of Israel are hardheaded and hardhearted.” (Ezek. 3:7) Emphasizing the gravity of Israel’s wrongdoing, Jehovah asked: “Will earthling man rob God? But you are robbing me.” (Mal. 3:8) In describing a test of faith in Babylon, Daniel vividly reported that “Nebuchadnezzar himself got filled with fury” because Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would not worship his image, so he ordered that they be bound and thrown into “the burning fiery furnace.” Helping us to realize the intensity of the heat, Daniel reported that the king had his men “heat up the furnace seven times more than it was customary to heat it up”—so hot that when they neared the furnace, the king’s men were killed. (Dan. 3:19-22) Speaking to people in Jerusalem a few days before his death, Jesus said with deep feeling: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks together under her wings! But you people did not want it. Look! Your house is abandoned to you.”—Matt. 23:37, 38.
Well-chosen words can convey vivid mental impressions to your listeners. If you use words that appeal to the senses, your listeners will “see” and “touch” the things about which you speak, “taste” and “smell” the foods to which you refer, and “hear” the sounds that you describe and the people whom you quote. The audience will become engrossed in what you are saying because you help them to live it with you.
Words that vividly convey ideas can cause people to laugh or to cry. They can inspire hope, infusing a downhearted person with a desire to live and stirring within him love for his Creator. People around the earth have been profoundly affected by the hope engendered by the words in such Bible passages as Psalm 37:10, 11, 34; John 3:16; and Revelation 21:4, 5.
As you read the Bible and the publications of “the faithful and discreet slave,” you will observe a wide variety of words and phrases. (Matt. 24:45) Do not leave them all on the printed page. Select ones that delight you, and make them part of your working vocabulary.
Speech Conforming to the Rules of Grammar. Some people realize that their speech may not always be in line with the rules of grammar. But what can they do about it?
If you are still in school, take advantage of the opportunity now to learn good grammar and careful choice of words. If you are unsure of the reason for a particular grammatical rule, ask your teacher. Do not do only enough to get by. You have motivation that other students may not have. You want to be an effective minister of the good news.
What if you are older and grew up speaking a language other than the one you now use? Or perhaps you lacked opportunity for much formal education in your own language. Do not be discouraged. Rather, make a genuine effort to improve, doing so for the sake of the good news. Much that we know about grammar we learn by listening to others speak. So listen carefully when seasoned speakers give their talks. When you read the Bible and Bible-based publications, be conscious of the sentence structure, the words that are used together, and the context in which they are used. Model your own speech after these good examples.
Popular entertainers and singers may use expressions and modes of speech that clash with grammatical usage. People tend to imitate such individuals. Drug dealers and others whose whole pattern of life is criminal or immoral often have their own vocabulary, ascribing to words definitions quite different from the customary meaning. It is not wise for Christians to imitate any of these people. To do so would identify us with those elements of the world and their way of life.—John 17:16.
Make it a practice to use good speech every day. If you allow your speech to become sloppy in everyday conversation, do not expect to be able to speak well on special occasions. But if you use speech of good quality in the ordinary circumstances of life, it will come easily and naturally to you when on the platform or when witnessing to others about the truth.