Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

11.5: Word Choice

  • Page ID
    20690
  • Effective writing involves making conscious choices with words. When you prepare to sit down to write your first draft, you likely have already completed some free writing exercises, chosen your topic, developed your thesis statement, written an outline, and even selected your sources. When it is time to write your first draft, start to consider which words to use to best convey your ideas to the reader.

    Some writers are picky about word choice as they start drafting. They may practice some specific strategies, such as using a dictionary and thesaurus, using words and phrases with proper connotations, and avoiding slang, clichés, and overly general words. The danger of being picky about your words as you draft (especially during your first draft) is that you may end up forgetting what you want to write while you search for that perfect word. This can cripple your writing process and create writer's block. One way to make sure that -- at some point in your writing process -- that you do choose the exact word that you mean is to place question marks "?" by the word you can't think of or that you think you might want to change, and then continue to draft. Once you are ready to edit your work at the sentence level (all of your content development and organization are complete) then you can search for question marks to find the places where you wanted to consider the word choice more carefully. Also, you may receive feedback from readers about word choice they find confusing or that you may want to re-consider.

    Use the following strategies to help you with your word choice. Once you understand these tricks of the trade, you can move ahead confidently in writing your assignment. Remember, the skill and accuracy of your word choice is a major factor in developing your writing style. Precise selection of your words will help you be more clearly understood—in both writing and speaking.

    Using a Dictionary and Thesaurus

    Even professional writers need help with the meanings, spellings, pronunciations, and uses of particular words. In fact, they rely on dictionaries and thesauruses 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 and thesauruses.

    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:

    Definition

    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

    Like a dictionary, a thesaurus is another indispensable writing tool. A thesaurus gives you a list of synonyms, words that have the same (or very close to the same) meaning as another word. It also lists antonyms, words with the opposite meaning of the word. A thesaurus will help you when you are looking for the perfect word with just the right meaning to convey your ideas. It will also help you learn more words and use the ones you already know more correctly.

    Definition

    precocious adj, She’s such a precocious little girl!: uncommonly smart, mature, advanced, smart, bright, brilliant, gifted, quick, clever, apt.

    Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

    Exercise 1

    Choose the correct synonym.

    a. lenient ________________ (relaxed, callous)

    b. abandon ________________ (vacate, deceive)

    c. berate __________________ (criticize, encourage)

    d. experienced ____________________ (callow, matured)

    e. spiteful ______________________ (malevolent, mellow)

    f. tame _____________________ (subdued, wild)

    g. tasty ______________________ (savory, bland)

    h. banal _____________________ (common, interesting)

    i. contradict __________________ (deny, revolt)

    j. vain ___________________ (boastful, simple)

    Using Proper Connotations

    A denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. A connotation, on the other hand, is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word. The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral. Keep in mind the connotative meaning when choosing a word. Using a thesaurus can be difficult sometimes if one doesn't know the connotations of a word because you risk using a word in the wrong way. If you aren't sure whether you are using a word with the right connotation, look up the word in sentences on the internet and see how its used in context. You can also ask your instructor or a tutor but if you are not sure about the connotation of a word, do a little research to figure it out.

    The three following words (scrawny, skinny, and lean) all describe someone who weighs less than average, but they all have different connotations.

    Scrawny

    • Denotation: Exceptionally thin and slight or meager in body or size.
    • Word used in a sentence: Although he was a premature baby and a scrawny child, Martin has developed into a strong man.
    • Connotation: (Negative) In this sentence the word scrawny may have a negative connotation in the readers’ minds. They might find it to mean a weakness or a personal flaw; however, the word fits into the sentence appropriately.

    Skinny

    • Denotation: Lacking sufficient flesh or meat, very thin or narrow.
    • Word used in a sentence: Skinny jeans have become very fashionable in the past couple of years.
    • Connotation: (Neutral) Based on cultural and personal impressions of what it means to be skinny, the reader may have positive or negative connotations of the word skinny.

    Lean

    • Denotation: Lacking or deficient in flesh; containing little or no fat.
    • Word used in a sentence: My brother has a lean figure whereas I have a more muscular build.
    • Connotation: (Neutral) In this sentence, lean has a neutral connotation. It does not call to mind an overly skinny person like the word scrawny, nor does imply the positive cultural impressions of the word skinny. It is merely a neutral descriptive word.

    Notice that all the words have a very similar denotation; however, the connotations of each word differ. This video explains it more.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Word Choice. Authored by: Prof Myhen. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

    Exercise 2

    In each of the following word sets, you will find words with similar denotations. Identify the words’ connotations as positive, negative, or neutral by writing the word in the appropriate box. Copy the chart onto your own piece of paper.

    1. curious, nosy, interested
    2. lazy, relaxed, slow
    3. courageous, foolhardy, assured
    4. new, newfangled, modern
    5. mansion, shack, residence
    6. spinster, unmarried woman, career woman
    7. giggle, laugh, cackle
    8. boring, routine, prosaic
    9. noted, notorious, famous
    10. assertive, confident, pushy
    Positive Negative Neutral

    Avoiding Slang

    Hey guys, let' learn about slang and other cool stuff like that! It will be awesome, trust me. This section is off the hook!

    What do you notice about the previous paragraph? You might notice that the language sounds informal, or casual, like someone might talk with a friend or family member, but with the purpose of this chapter, that seems odd, doesn't it? The paragraph also uses a lot of slang. Slang is a type of language that is informal and playful. It often changes over time. The slang of the past is different than the slang of today, but some slang has carried over into the present. Slang also varies by region and culture. There are literally thousands of slang words and expressions. The following table explains just a few of the common ones.

    Slang Expressions
    Slang Word or Phrase Meaning
    check it out, check this out look at, watch, examine
    chocoholic, workaholic, shopaholic a person who loves, or is addicted to chocolate, work, or shopping
    stuff things
    have some tea gossip
    crack up to laugh uncontrollably
    veg, kick it relax and do nothing
    dude, man person, man
    cool, hip, bad good, fashionable
    gross, nasty disgusting
    pig out overeat
    screw up make a bad mistake
    awesome great, terrific
    the shit the best

    Words are the basis of how a reader or listener judges you, the writer and speaker. When you write an academic paper or speak in a business interview, you want to be sure to choose your words carefully. In our casual, everyday talk, we often use a lot of "ums," "likes," "yeahs," and so on. This everyday language is not appropriate for formal contexts, such as academic papers and business interviews. You should switch between different ways of speaking and writing depending on whether the context if formal or informal. Ultimately, this is part of the message that is a result of the rhetorical context in which you are writing or speaking (see "The Art of Rhetoric").

    Slang describes informal words that are considered nonstandard English. Slang often changes with passing fads and may be used by or familiar to only a specific group of people. Most people use slang when they speak and in personal correspondences, such as e-mails, text messages, and instant messages. Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context but should be avoided in formal academic writing. It is also not appropriate to use profanity in academic writing, unless -- of course -- you are quoting a profane word from an assigned reading. However, when writing expository writing, another word will almost always fulfill the meaning and emphasis that a profane word may provide in other contexts.

    Writing at Work \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Frequent exposure to media and popular culture desensitizes many of us to slang. In certain situations, using slang at work may not be problematic, but keep in mind that words can have a powerful effect. Slang in professional e-mails or during meetings may convey the wrong message or even mistakenly offend someone.

    Exercise 3

    Edit the following paragraph by replacing the slang words and phrases with more formal language. Rewrite the paragraph on your own sheet of paper.

    I felt like such an airhead when I got up to give my speech. As I walked toward the podium, I banged my knee on a chair. Man, I felt like such a klutz. On top of that, I kept saying “like” and “um,” and I could not stop fidgeting. I was so stressed out about being up there. I feel like I’ve been practicing this speech 24/7, and I still bombed. It was ten minutes of me going off about how we sometimes have to do things we don’t enjoy doing. Wow, did I ever prove my point. My speech was so bad I’m surprised that people didn’t boo. My teacher said not to sweat it, though. Everyone gets nervous his or her first time speaking in public, and she said, with time, I would become a whiz at this speech giving stuff. I wonder if I have the guts to do it again.

    Collaboration

    Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.

    Exercise 4

    Edit the business email by replacing any slang words with more formal language.

    Dear Ms. O'Connor:

    I am writing to follow up on my interview from last week. First of all, it was awesome to meet you. You are a really cool lady. I believe I would be a pro at all the stuff you mentioned that would be required of me in this job. I am not a workaholic, but I do work hard and "take care of business." Haha. Please contact e if you have any questions or concerns.

    Sincerely,

    M. Ernest Anderson

    Avoiding Clichés

    Clichés are descriptive expressions that have lost their effectiveness because they are overused. Writing that uses clichés often suffers from a lack of originality and insight. Avoiding clichés in formal writing will help you write in original and fresh ways.

    • Clichéd: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes my blood boil.
    • Plain: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me really angry.
    • Original: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me want to go to the gym and punch the bag for a few hours.

    Tip

    Think about all the cliché phrases that you hear in popular music or in everyday conversation. What would happen if these clichés were transformed into something unique?

    Exercise 5

    On your own sheet of paper, revise the following sentences by replacing the clichés with fresh, original descriptions.

    1. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
    2. Fran had an ax to grind with Benny, and she planned to confront him that night at the party.
    3. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
    4. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too many days of work.
    5. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
    6. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
    7. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jeff a taste of his own medicine.
    8. While they were at the carnival Janice exclaimed, “Time sure does fly when you are having fun!”
    9. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.
    10. Jordan was dressed to the nines that night.

    Idioms

    Idioms are expressions that have a meaning different from the dictionary definition of the individual words in the expression. Because English contains many idioms, newer English speakers have difficulties making logical sense of idioms and idiomatic expressions. The more you are exposed to English, however, the more idioms you will come to understand. Until then, memorizing the more common idioms may be of some help.

    Idioms
    Idiom Definition
    A blessing in disguise A good thing you do not recognize as "good" at first
    A piece of cake Easy to do
    Better late than never It is better to do something late than not at all
    Get over it Recover from something (a perceived insult)
    I have no idea I don't know
    Not a chance It will definitely not happen
    On pins and needles Very nervous about something that is or may be happening
    On top of the world Feeling great
    Pulling your leg Making a joke by tricking you
    The sky is the limit The possibilities are endless

    What if you come across an idiom you do not understand? Context clues that can help you. Context clues are words or phrases around the unknown word or phrase that may help you decipher the meaning.

    1. Definition or explanation clue. An idiom ay be explained immediately after its use.

    • Sentence: I felt like I was sitting on pins and needles, I was so nervous.

    2. Restatement or synonym clues. An idiom may be simplified or restated.

    • Sentence: The young girl felt as though she had been sent to the dog house when her mother punished her for fighting in school.

    3. Contrast or antonym clues. An idiom may be clarified by a contrasting phrase or antonym that is near it.

    • Sentence: Chynna thought the 5k race would be a piece of cake, but it turned out to be very difficult.

    Pay attention tot he signal word but, which tells the reader that an opposite thought or concept is occuring.

    Using Specific Words

    Specific words and images make your writing more interesting to read. 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 yours 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. Atwater, explained how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

    Exercise 6

    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.

    1. Reilly got into her car and drove off.
    2. I would like to travel to outer space because it would be amazing.
    3. Jane came home after a bad day at the office.
    4. I thought Milo’s essay was fascinating.
    5. The dog walked up the street.
    6. The coal miners were tired after a long day.
    7. The tropical fish are pretty.
    8. I sweat a lot after running.
    9. The goalie blocked the shot.
    10. I enjoyed my Mexican meal.

    Choose Strong, Descriptive Verbs

    When used as main verbs, the following words are weak and almost meaningless: have, do, make, went/gone, and the "to be" verbs. Some of these verbs are just fine as linking verbs, but not as main verbs. Choose a more descriptive verb to replace these weak, almost meaningless verbs. This video will explain.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)
    Strong Verbs. Authored by: Curriculum Pathways. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

    Exercise 7

    In this exercise, replace the weak verbs with stronger, more descriptive verbs. You may need to replace more than one weak verb in a sentence.

    1. Bethany's mother made her do her homework before Bethany could go out to play.

    2. Michael went to play video games with his buddy, Pat, at Pat's house.

    3. Chris and Sam went to prom and then hung out with friends afterward. They didn't get home until 3 a.m.!

    4. Donna was doing her best, but it was sometimes hard to keep up and balance work and school.

    5. The three-year-old was being childish when throwing her sibling's toy across the rooom.

    Exercise 8

    Rewrite the following personal essay by replacing the slang, clichés, and overly general language with stronger, more precise language.

    My biggest regret happened in high school. I had always felt like a fish out of water, so during my sophomore year I was determined to fit in with the cool people. Man, was that an uphill battle. I don’t even know why I tried, but hindsight is 20/20 I guess. The first thing I did was change the way I dressed. I went from wearing clothes I was comfortable in to wearing stuff that was so not me. Then I started wearing a ton of makeup, and my brother was all like, “What happened to your face?” Not only did my looks change, my personality changed a lot too. I started to act all stuck up and bossy with my friends, and they didn’t know how to respond to this person that used to be me. Luckily, this phase didn’t last more than a couple of months. I decided it was more fun to be me than to try to be someone else. I guess you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole after all.

    Collaboration

    Compare your changes with a classmate.

    Exercise 9

    Review a piece of writing that you have completed for school. Circle any sentences with slang, clichés, or overly general words and rewrite them using stronger language.

    Synonyms

    Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same, meaning as another word. You can say an “easy task” or a “simple task” because easy and simple are synonyms. You can say Hong Kong is a “large city” or a “metropolis” because city and metropolis are synonyms.

    However, it is important to remember that not all pairs of words in the English language are so easily interchangeable. The slight but important differences in meaning between synonyms can make a big difference in your writing. For example, the words boring and insipid may have similar meanings, but the subtle differences between the two will affect the message your writing conveys. The word insipid evokes a scholarly and perhaps more pretentious message than boring.

    The English language is full of pairs of words that have subtle distinctions between them. All writers, professionals and beginners alike, face the challenge of choosing the most appropriate synonym to best convey their ideas. When you pay particular attention to synonyms in your writing, it comes across to your reader. The sentences become much more clear and rich in meaning.

    Writing at Work

    Any writing you do at work involves a careful choice of words. For example, if you are writing an e-mail to your employer regarding your earnings, you can use the word pay, salary, or hourly wage. There are also other synonyms to choose from. Just keep in mind that the word you choose will have an effect on the reader, so you want to choose wisely to get the desired effect.

    Exercise 10

    On your own sheet of paper, write a sentence with each of the following words that illustrates the specific meaning of each synonym.

    1. leave, abandon
    2. mad, insane
    3. outside, exterior
    4. poor, destitute
    5. quiet, peaceful
    6. riot, revolt
    7. rude, impolite
    8. talk, conversation
    9. hug, embrace
    10. home, residence

    Collaboration

    Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.

    Antonyms

    Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning of a given word. The study of antonyms will not only help you choose the most appropriate word as you write; it will also sharpen your overall sense of language. Table 4.3 “Common Antonyms” lists common words and their antonyms.

    Table 4.3 - Common Antonyms
    Word Antonym Word Antonym
    absence presence frequent seldom
    accept refuse harmful harmless
    accurate inaccurate horizontal vertical
    advantage disadvantage imitation genuine
    ancient modern inhabited uninhabited
    abundant scarce inferior superior
    artificial natural intentional accidental
    attractive repulsive justice injustice
    borrow lend knowledge ignorance
    bravery cowardice landlord tenant
    create destroy, demolish likely unlikely
    bold timid, meek minority majority
    capable incapable miser spendthrift
    combine separate obedient disobedient
    conceal reveal optimist pessimist
    common rare permanent temporary
    decrease increase plentiful scarce
    definite indefinite private public
    despair hope prudent imprudent
    discourage encourage qualified unqualified
    employer employee satisfactory unsatisfactory
    expand contract tame wild
    forget remember vacant occupied

    Tip

    Learning antonyms is an effective way to increase your vocabulary. Memorizing words in combination with or in relation to other words often helps us retain them.

    Exercise 11

    Correct the following sentences by replacing the underlined words with an antonym. Write the antonym on your own sheet of paper.

    1. The pilot who landed the plane was a coward because no one was injured.
    2. Even though the botany lecture was two hours long, Gerard found it incredibly dull.
    3. My mother says it is impolite to say thank you like you really mean it.
    4. Although I have learned a lot of information through textbooks, it is life experience that has given me ignorance.
    5. When our instructor said the final paper was compulsory, it was music to my ears!
    6. My only virtues are coffee, video games, and really loud music.
    7. Elvin was so bold when he walked in the classroom that he sat in the back row and did not participate.
    8. Maria thinks elephants who live in freedom have a sad look in their eyes.
    9. The teacher filled her students’ minds with gloomy thoughts about their futures.
    10. The guest attended to every one of our needs.

    Contributors

    The page was last updated on June 8, 2020.