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The Language Perfectionist: Let Me Emphasize This One

Is anything amiss in the following three sentences?

  • “I must stress that I was neither consulted on the matter of changing the grades, nor was I asked to sign the alterations in the grading sheet.”
  • “At the outset, I would like to stress that it has been a pleasure working closely with my World Bank colleagues….”
  • “Stress the point that users are getting security warnings when visiting their site.”

A basic rule of good writing is never to use a long word when a short one will suffice. In most cases, this dictum is worth observing. But every rule has exceptions. In the above cases, I would substitute emphasize for stress.

Why? The word stress has multiple meanings, ranging from force or pressure to a serious psychological condition. Also, it’s a noun as well as a verb. Thus, its use in some contexts might momentarily mislead the reader or provoke irrelevant associations. (Example: “In our final tests of the new car model, we should stress the braking system.”) In contrast, the word emphasize is unambiguous.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]