Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

7: Appropriate Words

  • Page ID
  • The artist does not draw what he sees but what he must make others see. (Edgar Degas)

    Hemingway: I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

    Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had you stumped?

    Hemingway: Getting the words right.

    Words, words, words. (Hamlet)

    Making the reader see, “getting the words right,” or as Hamlet put it, holding “the mirror up to nature,” becomes increasingly difficult in a world facing accelerating change, clashing cultures, and serious questions about the nature of reality. Literature and History have led the humanities and social sciences in many of these challenges to old notions about language and meaning. But unless you’re asked to write an essay about postmodernism or the “linguistic turn,” your essays will probably not engage head-on with the cultural construction of language, identity, and reality. And even when you are asked to write on these subjects, your essay will still need to make sense to your readers.

    The 1992 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary contained 16,000 new words that had not been in the first edition twenty-five years earlier. Its executive editor, Anne H. Soukhanov, said “the most important shift in English usage in 400 years [is] the pervasive change in words linked to gender.” In addition to the gender-oriented changes, the dictionary added “nerd,” “passive smoking,” “couch potato,” “Mirandize,” and “job-sharing,” as these new concepts demanded new vocabulary. Soukhanov recalled that 2,500 years ago Confucius had claimed it was impossible to know humans without understanding the power of words. We continue to re-create ourselves and our worlds with language.

    Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” While it may not always be necessary for you to expand your world in order to complete an essay assignment, it is important to choose appropriate words. Remember that in addition to trying to earn some respect for your argument, you are always trying to hold onto and focus your reader’s attention.

    Watch Out For

    • Unnecessary Repetition & Wordiness: We often say more than we need to say. Voltaire is rumored to have apologized at the end of a long letter to his mother, saying “If I had had more time, I would have made it shorter.” We’ll come back to this when we talk about editing, but keep it in mind. Why say “at this point in time,” when “now” will do? Remember the words of John Travolta in Get Shorty: “I’m not going to say any more than I have to, if that.”
    • Clichés are overworked expressions such as “last but not least”, “in my humble opinion”, “lifestyle”, “back to square one”, and “in the final analysis.” They give readers the impression that the writer is tired or doesn’t care enough to keep the reader’s interest with original thought. If the words are recycled, perhaps the ideas are as well.
    • Jargon is technical or specialized language that quickly becomes clichéd, such as “wired”, “out of the loop”, the whole nine yards”, “bottom line”, “self-actualizing”, “anal retentive”, and “bourgeois.” When jargon words are new and have specific technical meanings, they may not be understood by non-specialists; by the time they are well-known they have become clichés.
    • Pop culture references tend to be more local and fleeting than elements of “high culture” that are recorded and taught as part of “cultural literacy.” Sometimes elements of popular culture become permanent (like the word “nerd” being added to the dictionary), but it’s hard to tell just what will be preserved and when this will happen. “Poodle skirts”, “Project Mayhem”, “moon walking”, “Hitchcock plots”, “TANSTAAFL”, and “Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica” might be obvious signals to a particular group – but usually you’ll want your writing to be understood by a wider audience.
    • Empty Words: Vague generalizations such as “the people”, “family values”, “the American way of life”, “liberal media bias”, “the workers”, “the humanist agenda”, and “fake news” suggest that you haven’t thought very hard about your subject, or that you’re trying to slide something by your reader.

    Sometimes writers deliberately use words that lack specific meanings (denotation), not out of carelessness but for their ability to create subjective, irrational responses in readers. Words have histories of their own, and many words are able to call on strong positive or negative associations. These connotations are often more important than the information the words provide. Habitual use of these words suggests either a high level of cluelessness (if the user isn’t aware the subject is controversial) or a deliberate attempt to push readers’ emotional buttons and sabotage reasonable discussion. Examples include:

    • Words with Contested Meanings: Like empty words, these are terms whose meaning has changed over time or words that have been defined differently by competing groups. “Liberal”, “conservative”, “capitalist”, “progressive”, and “socialist” are obvious examples, but most general terms mean different things to different people. It’s best to be as specific as possible: Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, Mary Lease’s populism, Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, and Hildegard von Bingen’s Christianity, for example.
    • Code-words: Words that deliberately disguise what their users mean to say. Euphemisms hide the less acceptable elements of ideas (but from whom?); argot tries to create group identity and shared specialized knowledge. Examples include “Job-creators” (that is, the rich), “pro-life” (anti-abortion), “enhanced interrogation” (torture), “freedom fighters” (terrorists on our side), as well as more benign terms like “passed away” and “make love.” Using code-words suggests that you share the point of view of others who regularly use them.


    Much (some people say all) language is metaphorical. We use metaphors (implied comparisons) to connect the unfamiliar to the familiar, so that readers can “see, hear, feel” abstract concepts as if they were well-known everyday things. For example, most science texts fifty years ago described atoms as little billiard balls, in spite of quantum mechanics which showed a hundred years ago that this metaphor was inaccurate. More recent science texts describe Einstein’s gravity (curvature of space-time) as a metaphorical “rubber sheet” that massive objects create depressions in, so that planets spin around massive stars the way pennies circle the big funnel at the museum. This is a really complicated metaphor when you think about it – it tries to explain a nearly unimaginable process in three-dimensional space using a two-dimensional metaphor, the rubber sheet. A few things to keep in mind about metaphors when reading and writing:

    • Overextended metaphors: The rubber sheet metaphor suggests one possible difficulty. Because most of us are not physicists, we have to rely on the assurances of experts that understanding this metaphor really tells us something about the way gravity really works in relativistic space-time. But even if it’s a good, valid metaphor, it’s still just a picture of a thing, not the thing itself. We need to be careful not to believe we “really know” the thing – or some vital detail that was not in the picture may jump out and metaphorically “slap us upside the head.”
    • Misapplied Metaphors: Because metaphors are often complex, we sometimes forget that they are “pictures” and try to use them where they don’t belong. For example, the simple ideas scientists use to describe the complex theory of evolution are easy to misapply. When we say “survival of the fittest” and think we’ve understood the whole complex theory, then it’s simple enough to take that idea and apply it to, say, people. The result was called Social Darwinism, which was not only bad science, but really bad for society.
    • Mixed Metaphors: When we’re using metaphors, it’s important to stick with one at a time. Mixing metaphors can confuse the reader. The other examples were mostly for you to be aware of when reading – this one applies to your writing. Consider: “This chain of events burned Beowulf’s bridges behind him.” The alliteration is very Anglo-Saxon, but metaphorical chains can’t burn metaphorical bridges. Or: “The Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the Senate are just the flip side of a coin with nothing to choose from between them.” But they can’t be, because a coin only has two sides, and just one flip side. And the point was perfectly clear without the clunky coin metaphor. Even when physically possible, mixed metaphors usually paint an absurd picture: “President Bush failed to subdue Iraqi insurgents. He could lead the horse to water, but when he couldn’t make it drink the anti-war rats left his administration’s sinking ship.”

    A Few More Things to Watch Out For

    • Diction: You can keep your readers motivated to follow your argument by choosing words with just the right shade of meaning and the right level of usage. Just as it’s possible to be too dry and formal (which we’re trying to avoid in this handbook by adopting an informal, conversational tone – how’s it working?), you also need to avoid being too informal or vulgar. Writing “Jefferson really screwed up the South with his hypocritical position on slavery” or “Hamlet wanted to get into Ophelia’s pants” is not going to convince your reader you ought to be taken seriously – no matter how true each statement might be. Precise, appropriate writing suggests (and at the same time, encourages) precise thinking.
    • Sexist Language: Remember that you are dealing with two “realities” in your writing: the perceived one outside yourself and the one you are creating in your interpretation. The more personal your interpretation, the more important it is to gain your readers’ sympathy so they will give you a fair hearing. Remember also that language not only describes a culture as it is, but also (intentionally or not) tends to prescribe how it should be. Sexist language is inappropriate and it is one of the quickest ways to needlessly lose the goodwill of a large segment of your audience. The problem arises from the lack of a common-gender third person pronoun in English. Americans are reluctant to use the English expression “one,” as in: “One should improve one’s mind.” But it is no longer acceptable to use “man” to indicate humanity or “he” to indicate an unspecified subject.
    • One person’s description is another person’s prescription. Fifty years ago, a writer would have thought nothing of saying “one man’s description.” Does that change correlate with a change in the status of females in our culture? We can only hope so. So how do you write smoothly and gender-neutrally in spite of the missing pronoun? It’s not that difficult – we’ve managed to get this far into the handbook without (hopefully) calling attention to the fact we haven’t been using “he,” “his,” and “him” when not referring to an actual male person. Here are some techniques to try (use what feels natural):
      • Use the plural: Instead of “A writer should choose his words carefully,” try “writers should choose their words carefully.”
      • Use “you”: Instead of “If a person thinks about it, he will see…” try “If you think about it, you will see…”
      • Try another form: Instead of “When a person studies, he will improve his grades,” try “Studying improves grades.” You may have noticed that using these three techniques also tends to make your writing more active and more personal.
      • Use a hybrid like “s/he”: This is much more acceptable than it was a few years ago, but will still trip up some readers, and you still have to decide what to do about object pronouns (her/him, hers/his). Many writers have chosen to use the feminine pronouns all the time. You probably don’t have to be told that this could be seen as a political act, with results that may vary depending on the politics of your reader.
    • Was this article helpful?