Specificity

Yes, I live in northern Colorado. All around me are rivers that have overflowed the normal capacities. And yes, the news is all about the waters. I am up, dry (relatively) as water flows downhill, and have food and shelter. I’m lucky. All of this goes into the idea folder for if I ever need to write about natural disasters and whatnot. I’m not planning on writing about the flood.

But the things that have gone on around here have made me acutely aware of the specificity of word choice. Granted, the talking heads on the TV generally do not write their own copy. It is handed to them after cursory editing to get it on the air before anyone else does. I get that. The minutiae a lot of times gets overlooked in the rush. But it can be important.

For example: water is EROSIVE, not generally CORROSIVE. In certain cases, water can be corrosive especially with lead and time. Rust is the result. However when you’re talking about a flood, the water is eroding the substructure of the road/bridge/railroad/building etc. The water is taking the substance away, breaking it up, changing state (dirt to mud, snow to water, for examples) rather than actually changing its nature by a chemical reaction (iron to rust). Mud is much less stable than dirt. The river therefore eroded the support under the road and washed it away.

The term 100 year flood is another specific example. There is a 1% probability of a flood of this magnitude happening each year. Where people get confused is that they say it is a 100 year flood. No, it’s just a possibility of 1 chance in 100 of it happening each year. It could happen again next year and then not again for 1000 years, we still have the same 1% chance. 1 chance in 100 does not mean that it only happens once every 100 years.

Now does this really matter amidst all the destruction and suffering going on due to these floods? No, not really. But as a writer, when you go back and edit what you’ve written make sure that the words you’ve chosen mean what you really intend them to mean. Write on.

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