Conventionality, what quality is being measured as either weak or strong when this phrase is used? In other words, does one use a word strongly when she applies an adjective to herself or to something else that might overstate the case a bit? As in, strong means that the thing in question which the adjective is being employed to describe doesn’t quite measure up to the level of prowess or ability which the adjective is meant to denote.

Or is it strong as in pejorative? As in strong language implies strong emotions such as anger or resentment are behind the word.

For instance, I’m wanting to write to my old English professor and saying something to the effect that it might be a strong use of the word “student” by referring to my self as one of his former students. What I’m wanting to communicate is that I’m not sure I’m worthy of the designation student since I did not apply myself as I now wish I would have, and thereby fell short of the idea of being a student proper. So, in my mind “student” is too strong of a word to use to describe my participation in his classroom. But is this the kind of idea the phrase “strong use of the word” is conventionally used to measure or describe?

  • I might prefer too specific / precise / exact for your example if it's in a more formal context. Or in a more informal context, perhaps too big a word (being a Brit, I wouldn't usually include the article in too X or a Y). Whether the exact sense with your text relates to just "accuracy" in general, or whether it specifically implies that "student" would be a more highly-prized designation (that unfortunately the speaker's level of participation doesn't merit) is a matter of opinion (plus the actual real-world context of the utterance). Sep 6, 2021 at 11:47
  • Working papers from the United States National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws contains an example where 'strong' is the opposite of 'loose' or 'broad/ened' here. One assumes 'restricted to the narrow prototypical sense'. But in another article I've found, it is used to mean the opposite, 'broadest'. Sep 6, 2021 at 11:53
  • Many people would agree that in general, the word "bastard" qualifies as "strong language" (coarse, profane, offensive). But when used as an insult, the implication of "illegitimacy" (born to an unmarried mother) isn't normally significantly present (the word is primarily being used metaphorically). On the other hand, I personally would be inclined to understand strong use of the word bastard as very specifically / accurately referring to illegitimate birth circumstances. Sep 6, 2021 at 11:56
  • As an aside, If you are writing informally then “student” is too strong [no 'of'] a word to use should be reduced to “student” *may be too strong a word..." , and follow this with an explanation, e.g. "I wasn't the most diligent!" If you are writing formally, you should not even mention your own assessment of your time as his student - it might reflect on his teaching abilities.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 6, 2021 at 12:03
  • [correction: As I now wish I had] Misuse of the word student
    – Lambie
    Sep 6, 2021 at 14:34

1 Answer 1


"Strong use of the word" or "...phrase" seems to have a wide variety of meanings, some of which are contradictory: sometimes it can refer to a narrow or particular use, but often it refers to a questionable or inaccurate use. It can also refer to the use of bold or striking language, or to frequent use of a word.

In the absence of definition I'll look at some examples.

In the Working Papers of the National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws Relating to the Study Draft of the New Federal Criminal Code: Relating to Chapters 1-13 of the Study Draft of a new Federal Criminal Code (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970) we find a debate over whether the word "conduct" can include involuntary actions, with "strong use" referring to a narrow or more precise definition (this may relate to the phrase a fortiori meaning "with greater reason" or "as a stronger case"):

At least the strong use of the word 'conduct' contains some notion of a person's conducting himself in a certain way, exercising control over himself, some element of volition.

On the other hand, many more recent sources use the phrase to mean questionable - a wide or less precise use. From the BBC in 2014:

Dr Goodenough said she just wants participants' best guess, no matter how tentative the speculation.

"It's a strong use of the word 'estimate'," she said.

Similar in meaning, from the Guardian in 2003, a discussion of a phrase in a book review:

"a woman in a yellow hat in front of the lemons on display in such a way that the hat becomes a lemon". (A rather strong use of the word "becomes" there, perhaps.)

Another sense is to mean an emphasised or striking word or phrase. In the following, from a lighthearted report (Diary) in a British news website in 2017, it appears to refer to a bold or striking use of a word:

What was supposed to be a controlled bomb demonstration went horribly, if somewhat amusingly, wrong and two men had to be taken to a nearby hospital after being injured by the device.

Attendees of the re-enactment obviously took to social media, with one user rather helpfully noting that “someone legit just got blown up” at the event. Which is, when you think about it, quite a succinct and helpful statement given the situation. Strong use of the word ‘legit’, despite the fact that they had more than enough available Twitter characters to go with ‘legitimate’.

The Daily Mail in 2012 uses "makes strong use of" to refer to repeated and emphasised use:

Visit Suffolk launched a new promotional drive last month which made strong use of the word ‘curious’ as a way of highlighting the attractions of the East Anglian region.

Twitter users were encouraged to tweet about the county via hashtags such as #proudtobecurious and #curiouscounty.

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