Principles of Word Choice

What a difference a word can make! Dozens of speeches, from the Gettysburg Address to "I Have a Dream," are famous for their perfect turns of phrase. The speakers' words were so carefully chosen, so clear and effective, that they still echo in English courses— and in American culture— today.

Word choice is even more important in writing than it is in speaking, since you cannot readily add inflection to words on the page. The force of your message is largely dependent on the precision of your language.

The most common word choice problem I have seen while tutoring is not, however, imprecision. Many students approach formal writing with the assumption that it requires complex sentences and high-brow vocabulary. As a result, they sacrifice readability on a misconceived altar of "scholarly" writing.

You can avoid such stylistic blunders by following these general principles:

1. Choose words that convey your meaning, not words that obscure it.

The most important thing in writing is the clear presentation of ideas. It is better to err on the side of clear simplicity than to try to impress your reader with complexity but fail to communicate.

2. Write as naturally as possible.

In other words: be yourself. It is almost impossible to communicate clearly if you are busy trying to sound like someone you're not.

3. Have a reason for your choices.

Any time you hit a rough spot, stop and think about your goals and your audience. How can your word choice help achieve your ends? Make your choices consciously.

4. Be consistent.

Sudden changes in tone and complexity are distracting. And so, whatever choices you make, be consistent in following them. If you use formal language in the opening paragraphs, use formal language throughout. If your sentence structure is usually simple, think carefully about the merits of complex clauses before you start tossing them in and disrupting the flow of your writing. In short, make choices that you can comfortably sustain throughout a paper.

Word Choice

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