Listen to an audio version of this page (9 min, 18 sec):
Writers commonly struggle to find just the right word. Generally, we want to choose words that convey our meaning precisely and are not jarring to readers. If we are considering whether a particular word works in a particular sentence, we can look up its definition and examples of how it is used to check whether it fits our purpose.
Using dictionary definitions
Even professional writers need help with the meanings, spellings, pronunciations, and uses of particular words. In fact, they rely on dictionaries to help them write better. No one knows every word in the English language and their multiple uses and meanings, so all writers, from novices to professionals, can benefit from the use of dictionaries.
Most dictionaries provide the following information:
- Spelling. How the word and its different forms are spelled.
- Pronunciation. How to say the word.
- Part of speech. The function of the word.
- Definition. The meaning of the word.
- Synonyms. Words that have similar meanings.
- Etymology. The history of the word.
Look at the following sample dictionary entry and see which of the preceding information you can identify:
myth, mith, n. [Gr. mythos, a word, a fable, a legend.] A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their own beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story; something or someone having no existence in fact.—myth • ic, myth • i • cal
Checking examples of how a word is commonly used
Sometimes a word's definition suggests that it fits our meaning, but the word is not commonly used in the way we want to use it. It may call up feelings or associations we don't intend. See 8.2: Word Choice and Connotation for much more on the emotional associations of words. It may also be that a word is more formal or informal than we intend. For example, slang might be fine in conversation with peers but jarring to our readers if we are writing an essay for a general academic audience. See 9.3: Distance and Intimacy for more on choosing the level of formality that fits our purpose.
Most dictionaries also offer brief samples of sentences or phrases that use the word in question, so we can start by reading those to get an idea of a word's common usage patterns. A Google search on the word will turn up additional sample sentences. We may want to search a specific publication's website, like the New York Times. To do that, enter the word into a search engine followed by "site:" and the website we want to search. For example, if we want to look for examples of how the word precocious is commonly used, we would enter the following into a search engine:
The results would include many examples of the word precocious used in sentences in New York Times articles. Since the New York Times is known for high editorial standards, we can be confident that the word will be used correctly according to common usage.
Choosing specific words over general words
Specific words and images make writing more interesting. Whenever possible, avoid overly general words in your writing; instead, try to replace general language with particular nouns, verbs, and modifiers that convey details and that bring words to life. Add words that provide color, texture, sound, and even smell to your writing.
- General: My new puppy is cute.
- Specific: My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with the biggest black eyes I have ever seen.
- General: My teacher told us that plagiarism is bad.
- Specific: My teacher, Ms. Liu, created a presentation detailing exactly how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.
Revise the following sentences by replacing the overly general words with more precise and attractive language. Write the new sentences on your own sheet of paper.
- I would like to travel to outer space because it would be amazing.
- Eryka came home after a bad day at the office.
- I thought Milo’s essay was fascinating.
- The grape pickers were tired after a long day.
- The tropical fish are pretty.
- I enjoyed my Mexican meal.