Chapter 2: Working with Words: Which Word Is Right?

2.3 Word Choice

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the reasons why using a dictionary and thesaurus is important when writing
  • Identify how to use proper connotations
  • Identify how to avoid using slang, clichés, and overly general words in your writing

Effective writing involves making conscious word choices. When you prepare to sit down to write your first draft, you likely have already completed some freewriting 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 practise 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.

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 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

Like a dictionary, a thesaurus is another indispensable writing tool. A thesaurus gives you a list of synonyms—words that have the same (or 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. Look at the following thesaurus entry:

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

Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

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. Look at the examples below:

Table 2.3 Denotation vs. Connotation
Word Denotation Sentence Connotation
Scrawny Exceptionally thin and slight or meagre in body or size. Although he was a premature baby and a scrawny child, Martin has developed into a strong man. (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 Lacking sufficient flesh, very thin. Skinny jeans have become very fashionable in the past couple of years. (Positive) Based on cultural and personal impressions of what it means to be skinny, the reader may have positive connotations of the word skinny.
Lean Lacking or deficient in flesh; containing little or no fat. My brother has a lean figure, whereas I have a more muscular build. (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.

Self-Practice Exercise 2.6

H5P: Group the following words into positive, negative, and neutral based on their connotation.

  • relaxed
  • cackle
  • foolhardy
  • lazy
  • slow
  • new
  • laugh
  • curious
  • assured
  • modern
  • shack
  • residence
  • interested
  • courageous
  • giggle
  • newfangled
  • mansion
  • nosy

Avoiding Slang

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 correspondence, such as emails, text messages, and instant messages.

Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context but should be avoided in formal academic writing.

Writing at Work

Frequent exposure to media and popular culture has desensitized 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 emails or during meetings may convey the wrong message or even mistakenly offend someone.

Self-Practice Exercise 2.7

H5P: Revising for Formal Prose

Read the following example of student writing.

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 practising this speech 24/7, and I still bombed. It was 10 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 their 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.

  • Which passages in the paragraph would you describe as “slang” that you should avoid in your writing?
  • For each of the examples you noted above, indicate how you will fix the use of slang to reflect more formal academic writing.
  • Now, rewrite the entire paragraph to be more reflective of what academic writing should look like.

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?

Self-Practice Exercise 2.8

H5P: In each of the statements below, pick the one that uses a cliché.

    1. She is writing a memoir to explore her family history, including the negative parts.
    2. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
    1. Fran had an axe to grind with Benny, and she planned to confront him that night at the party.
    2. Fran was angry with Benny for years of annoyances, and she planned to confront him that night at the party.
    1. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
    2. Mr. Muller could no longer cope with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
    1. Greg was fired because he missed too many days of work.
    2. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too many days of work.
    1. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheque.
    2. Sometimes it is hard to pay for everything I need with just one paycheque.
    1. I’m finding it hard to work today after studying all night.
    2. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
    1. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to show Jeff that she was frustrated with his lack of help with daily tasks.
    2. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jeff a taste of his own medicine.
    1. While they were at the carnival, Janice exclaimed, “I love this, and I’m so sorry we have to go home soon!”
    2. While they were at the carnival, Janice exclaimed, “Time sure does fly when you are having fun!”
    1. Jeremy struggled to find a response when the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.
    2. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.

Answer Key

  1. B
  2. A
  3. A
  4. B
  5. A
  6. B
  7. B
  8. B
  9. B

Avoiding Overly General 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 colour, texture, sound, and even smell to your writing.

  • General: My new puppy is cute.
  • General: My teacher told us that plagiarism is bad.
  • Specific: My teacher, Ms. Atwater, created a presentation detailing exactly how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

Self-Practice Exercise 2.9

H5P: Rewrite the Sentences.

For each of the sentences below, rewrite the plain, general prose to be more detailed and specific. See the example above for a suggestion.

  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.

Key Takeaways

  • Using a dictionary and thesaurus as you write will improve your writing by improving your word choice.
  • Connotations of words may be positive, neutral, or negative.
  • Slang, clichés, and overly general words should be avoided in academic writing.

Writing Application

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.

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