Finding the right word

Some people collect Beanie Babies. Tom Heehler collects words.

Heehler found himself in some intimidating company when he enrolled, in his mid-40s, at Harvard University's night school. Looking to complete his bachelor's degree, he received an unexpected wake-up call.

"It was quickly borne in on me how poorly spoken I was," Heehler says. "You don't have to hang around Harvard very long before you feel that."

It wasn't that Heehler wasn't bright.

"I can have intelligent thoughts," he says. "The problem was how do I translate those thoughts into intelligent words reflective of who I am and what I mean."

So whenever he heard a particularly eloquent turn of phrase, he'd write it down. Next to it, he'd write down what he would have said in that situation. (Example: "Of its own accord" versus "by itself." "Bathed in light" versus "lit up.") He kept this up for four years.

The results — in addition to a more articulate Heehler — is "The Well-Spoken Thesaurus: The Most Powerful Way to Say Everyday Words and Phrases" (Sourcebooks, $12.99).

You can follow its title's lead and use the book as a thesaurus. (Hmm, instead of "friendly," let me try "genial." No, "benevolent.") Or you can read it as a celebration of the spoken word, which is truer to its spirit.

In the book's early chapters, Heehler pays homage to such revered and varied orators and writers as T.S. Eliot and Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Atwood and Barack Obama, studying their rhetorical devices and urging his readers to adopt them in their own communications.

He admires the late civil rights leader's "shape shifting" in his "A knock at midnight" speech: "The problem isn't so much that we don't know enough, but it's as if we aren't good enough. The trouble isn't so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but that our moral genius lags behind."

King, Heehler notes, twice takes a piece of the structure—or shape—of the first clause and shifts it to the second. (Don't know enough/aren't good enough and scientific genius/moral genius.)

Pretend, Heehler suggests, you're tasked with creating a slogan for your company. Simple shape-shifting can turn the bland "Don't cause a problem; find a solution" into the more clever "Don't cause a problem; cause a solution."

He lends similar analysis to Barbara Kingsolver's use of the objective correlative, John Steinbeck's intuitive description, Henry James' creative prepositions.

He calls out "seven rhetorical sins" and compares words to spices. "An embarrassment of sugar will leave your prose flowery and pretentious. Too much garlic, and your writing will taste academic and stiff," he writes. "And always be mindful of your audience. Try not to serve vichyssoise to a coal miner, and do not give Cheerios to the queen of England. Neither will be amused."

Then comes the thesaurus. Instead of "about," try "to the tune of." Rather than "casual," try "perfunctory." In place of "hard," use "onerous."

If language is one of your loves, you'll likely enjoy Heehler's unconventional collection. Regardless of its reception, though, the book has had a profound effect on Heehler, in ways that transcend mere oration.

"I wouldn't have had the confidence to talk to a reporter a year or two years ago," he says. "When you're well-spoken you're more confident. And confidence translates to everything in your life."