Diction Exercise (192)

Diction is word choice. Choose the more appropriate word or phrase for the nonstandard expressions (highlighted in boldface) in the following sentences.

  • A sudden change in atmospheric pressure busted all the balloons at the children’s party.

  • After all his boasting, Chris bombed out on the chemistry examination.

  • Called into the office for her misbehavior, Lucy zoned out while the principal was talking to her.

  • Having the electricity fail at exactly the same moment I’d said "Who’s afraid of ghosts" totally psyched us out.

  • After the fire inspector examined the fuse box, he said that someone had fiddled with it.

Answers and Explanations

1. A sudden change in atmospheric pressure busted all the balloons at the children’s party.

Correct: burst
Although widely used in speech and even in journalistic writing, nonstandard bust as a verb to mean explode or break is inappropriate in any but the most informal context.

2. After all his boasting, Chris bombed out on the chemistry examination.

Correct: failed
The expression "to bomb out" can mean, as in this context, "to do badly, fail." As an adjective, it can mean "overcome by fatigue or other stressor." For example, "You look really bombed out this morning."

3. Called into the office for her misbehavior, Lucy zoned out while the principal was talking to her.

Correct: stopped listening
The expression "to zone out" means to enter that state of mental absence in which a person stares without seeing, not thinking or attending to his surroundings. To become distracted, one would have to be aware of something external.

4. Having the electricity fail at exactly the same moment I’d said "Who’s afraid of ghosts" totally psyched us out.

Correct: unnerved us
The expression "to be psyched out" expresses the feeling one has when something happens that seems to be more than mere coincidence; the event is perceived as creepy.

5. After the fire inspector examined the fuse box, he said that someone had fiddled with it.

Correct: tampered with it
The expression "to fiddle with" is used colloquially to mean "to make aimless movements with one’s hands or fingers: "Stop fiddling with your hair and let me brush it." It can also mean to to cheat or do something illicit with something. For example, "Somebody fiddled with the accounts."

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