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Subsection 7.3.2 Making Effective Word Choices

Strong word choice improves the quality of a paper and helps hold the reader's interest; inversely, using words incorrectly or ineffectively can lessen the writer's credibility. As you entrain for forthcoming linguistic endeavors, exploit these pointers to ensure your belles-lettres aren't as annoying and incorrect as this sentence has been.

Incorrect Word Choice.

Incorrect word choice usually occurs when a writer uses a word outside of its standard definition or context. This misuse can happen for a variety of reasons, including the writer having a wrong mental definition of the word, not knowing the word's popular connotation, or using the word in an inappropriate disciplinary context.

List 7.3.1. Strategies for Using the Right Words
  • If there's a word that comes to mind when you're writing and you're not completely sure of its meaning, err on the side of caution and look it up!

    We, for example, just looked up “err” to make sure that was the right word to use.

  • If you select a word from a thesaurus, make sure to also look the word up in a dictionary (online, of course).

    The dictionary definition and example sentences will help you catch any connotations or standard uses of the word that you might not otherwise be familiar with.

  • Do your course readings to learn which words have specific (different) meaning in particular disciplines.

    When writing in a specific discipline, it can be difficult to know what words are specific to that discipline and how they are used differently in academic writing than they are in standard, every day conversation. In statistics, for example, “significant” has a very specific meaning (i.e., having statistical importance), and any other uses of the word are incorrect and generally avoided. Similarly, “conjugation” has a very different meaning in biology than it does in Spanish. You can't avoid every mistake, but professors can help guide you. Reading scholarly work in a discipline you're studying is also an invaluable tool for learning that discipline's jargon and linguistic preferences.

  • Read Subsection 7.3.5 to avoid misusing words that sound alike.

Ineffective Word Choice.

While academic writing usually employs more abstruse and sophisticated language than you find in every day conversation, sometimes using “big words” simply to sound smart can come across to an audience as pedantic. Words that are overly complicated and obfuscate the meaning of a sentence are therefore ineffective; if the point of writing is to convey meaning clearly, a confusing word should not get in the way of that meaning.

Alternatively, using words or phrases that are too simplistic, overused, or trite can also ineffectively convey meaning to a reader. Passive sentences, phrases constructed around “to be,” and clichés like “to be honest” all diminish the point you're trying to convey to a reader.

Example 7.3.2. Effective Word Choice: Alas, Poor Hamlet!

Compare the following two sentences:

“To be honest, I didn't think that Hamlet was played by the right actor.”

“The actor who played Hamlet fell five times on stage, broke poor Yorick's skull, and forgot his lines during the “To be, or not to be. . .” speech. The directors of the play should have chosen a better actor to play Hamlet.”

The first sentence isn't bad, but the second sentences uses specific verbs that are widely known to paint a rich picture about why the actor who played Hamlet should get the hook.

A stick figure person holds up a cartoon skull in one hand.

Here are some synonyms that you might consider using to replace common or boring words. Remember to search for the definition of the synonym if you're uncertain of its meaning or connotations to ensure that it correctly conveys the meaning of your sentence.

List 7.3.3. Overused Words and More Colorful Alternatives
say

claim, convey, respond, report, maintain, state, deliver, express, communicate, make known, indicate, speak, voice, vocalize, assert

use

employ, utilize, apply, practice, operate, adopt, wield

means

symbolizes, conveys, implies, suggests, alludes to, connotes, foreshadows, determines

there is/are

restructure sentence to convey more meaning: “George listed five reasons . . .” instead of “there are five reasons . . .”

interesting

compelling, curious, provocative, striking, engaging, enthralling, stimulating, intriguing

effective

successful, powerful, efficacious, impactful, convincing, persuasive, cogent

unique

distinct, rare, idiosyncratic, particular, sui generis, exceptional, extraordinary, unparalleled, unprecedented

important or significant

rather than using these words, clarify why something is important by picking a verb or adjective that is more specific: “This passage is significant . . .” could become “The tone of this passage demonstrates . . .”

a lot

a collection, heaps, a slew, a wealth, a plenty, numerous, piles, a great deal, an abundance, myriad

really (1)

undoubtedly, genuinely, admittedly, honestly, truly, without a doubt

really (2)

certainly, extremely, decidedly, thoroughly, exceptionally, surely

actually

literally, truly, indeed

very

extremely, exceedingly, exceptionally, decidedly, particularly, deeply, extraordinarily, noticeably, unusually, profoundly, remarkably