In every kind of writing, it's essential to choose the best word to express your intended meaning. If you take time to choose the best word rather than simply accepting the first word that comes to mind, you'll be taking an important step toward writing effectiveness. Use the following four questions to help you choose the best word for your needs.

  • Is this word specific enough?
  • Does this word have unwanted connotations?
  • Will my reader understand this word in the same way I do?
  • Is this word overused?

1 . Is this word specific enough?

Briefly, a general word refers to a large group of loosely related members, while a specific word refers to a smaller group of more closely related members.

Just as "large" is the opposite of "small" and "fast" is the opposite of "slow," "specific" is the opposite of "general," and understanding one concept depends largely upon understanding the other. Briefly, a general word refers to a large group of loosely related members, while a specific word refers to a smaller group of more closely related members. For instance, because the word "animal" could refer to any of a million different creatures from ants to elephants, it is a very general term. The word "fire ant," however, narrows the range of possible reference to a more limited and closely related group and is therefore more specific.

General: animal
Specific: fire ant

As the above diagram shows, general and specific are relative rather than absolute terms. That is, a given word may be either general or specific depending upon what it's being compared with, just as a runner who is fast when compared with college teammates may be slow at the NCAA Outdoor Meet. Yet the runner's speed may not have changed at all in an absolute sense, only in relation to the competitors. So it is with words. If compared with "animal," "insect" seems specific because it refers to a group with fewer and more closely related members. When compared with "fire ant," however, "insect" seems general because it can refer to so many different kinds of creatures.

In choosing the specific word over the general one you limit the number of possible meanings. When you restrict meaning in this way, you increase the sharpness of the image your reader receives and decrease the chance of misunderstanding and communication failure.

2. Does this word have unwanted connotations?

Up to now we've been talking only about the representational part of a word's meaning, but this isn't the only important aspect of a word's total meaning. It's quite common, in fact, for several words that mean the same, or nearly the same, thing to have vastly different impacts on a reader. This is because in addition to the strictly rational part of meaning (called denotation) words also carry emotional overtones (called connotations). These connotations are stronger in some words than in others. While a word like "mixed-breed" is a neutral way to describe a dog that is not "pure-bred," "mongrel" adds a slightly unfavorable judgment about the dog, and "mutt" proclaims it nearly worthless.

It's quite common, in fact, for several words that mean the same, or nearly the same, thing to have vastly different impacts on a reader.

Learning to recognize the emotional overtones in our language allows us greater control over the way readers respond to our writing. Not only do we avoid creating an undercurrent that works against our central purpose, we gain a valuable tool for shaping readers' attitudes toward our subject. Notice the very different effects of these two sentences whose denotative meanings are substantially the same:

That primitive cabin set miles from the reach of developers has been allowed to stand undisturbed for centuries.

That rickety shack in the middle of nowhere hasn't been cared for in ages.

Either of these could be an effective topic sentence for a descriptive paragraph, depending on whether we wanted to get the cabin preserved or torn down.

Be especially careful of connotations if you're in the habit of using a thesaurus to find synonyms for words in your active vocabulary since the difference in meaning between two words listed in a single thesaurus entry is often due to the different connotations they have. If you substitute a less familiar word for a more familiar one, you need to be aware of this and be sure the connotations of the new word are suited to your needs.

3. Will my reader understand this word in the same way I do?

How a word is finally understood depends on many factors, not all of which are under the writer's control. Writers must anticipate how readers will respond to language, estimating whether certain words are within their vocabularies and whether others, such as environmentalist, have the same connotations for both reader and writer. Anticipating the reader's reactions is always important, and no place is it more so than in choosing your words.

Anticipating the reader's reactions is always important, and no place is it more so than in choosing your words.

Failure to take the reader sufficiently into account often shows up in a writer's abuse of jargon, which in one sense means the specialized vocabulary of people in a particular group or profession and in a broader sense means the use of technical or scientific language in place of equally appropriate everyday words.

Jargon in the first sense can be an effective way to communicate with members of a profession who understand the jargon and who recognize by your use of the specialized vocabulary that you belong to the group. The problem comes when you unconsciously use jargon on people outside the group, who may not know what it means. The stock expressions that seem clear and apt to those within your group may bewilder and frustrate an outsider.

Jargon in the second sense is almost always bad. Unless you're writing a diplomatic agreement, a warranty, or an insurance policy, in which you want to baffle the reader, prefabricated phrases such as "assume the initiative," "render inoperative," and "prioritization of values," would be better replaced by the clearer and more vivid "take charge," "break," "decide what matters most."

As George Orwell and others have pointed out, writers who rely on such inflated diction are usually trying to dress up ordinary ideas, to make them look more important than they really are, so the reader will be impressed and slightly mystified.

Most readers, however, recognize the trick and regard writers who use jargon with justified suspicion. If you find yourself writing this way, slow down and carefully choose synonyms that are fresher, more vivid, and more generally understood.

Put yourself in the reader's place and look back at what you've written. What words might be unfamiliar? Can you find substitutes? If not, should you take a sentence or two to define them? Are any words ambiguous, capable of meaning more than one thing?

I already own a fine comb.

What should "fine" be changed to so that its intended meaning will come across to the reader? Are you using any words in a special or unusual way that your reader might not be aware of? If so, shouldn't you explain?

4. Is this word overused?

The words and expressions we hear and see most often become integral parts of us and find their way into our writing. This is as it should be, unless a word or expression has grown stale or trite through overuse.

Find a fresher way to put it.

If your readers have seen a phrase often, it will no longer evoke a fresh image for them. "Stood out like a sore thumb," for instance, is so familiar we don't consider how noticeable a sore thumb is and how difficult to hide. Words like "groovy" or "Mickey Mouse" (in the sense of meaning pointless and easy) have lost most of their impact because their novelty is gone.

The writer who uses such tired language may not be misunderstood, but may be thought unimaginative and lazy. Such overused expressions are called clichés. They make your writing, and therefore your thoughts, appear routine, predictable, and stale. Find a fresher way to put it.


3.23 With each group below, arrange the terms in order from least to most specific.

a. animal, living thing, mammal, leopard, cat

b. western seaport, seaport, place, Seattle, Pier 45 c. sport, kick off, activity, football, team sport

d. clogged fuel line, situation, problem, engine trouble, car problem

e. quadrangle, shape, parallelogram, geometric figure, rectangle

3.24 With a partner discuss the connotations of the italicized words. Then change each one to a word with a similar denotation but a different connotation.

a. We had an uneventful stay there.

b. Curtiss is quite confident, isn't he?

c. Mr. Simpson would be here himself, but he's busy.

d. The stench was everywhere.

e. You could hear the loud cars cruising past all night.

f. I'll have the ground beef sandwich.

g. The Rockefellers are a rich family.

h. Next, Sarah strolled in and plopped down. i. His face was weathered and lined.

j. Ms. Prochaska's inexpensive, unadorned designs delighted the stuffy board of directors.

3.25 Look up each of the following words in your word processor's thesaurus. For each word, use two alternatives in a complete sentence.

examine, event, produce, undesirable, magic, disobedience

3.26 For each sentence you wrote in Activity 3.25, substitute a third word for the original. How is the effect of the sentence changed by the substitution.

3.27 Translate the following jargon-clogged sentences into more vivid, effective English.

a. These dividend dollars give you the opportunity to increase your insurance from $25,000 to $50,000 with a minimal out-of-pocket expenditure of cash commencing in five years from the initial application date.

b. All emergency floatation devices have been conspicuously located on both port and starboard sides to facilitate passenger accessibility.

c. The following program has been determined to contain material intended for viewing by mature audiences: parental discretion advised.

d. This regulation supersedes all comparable regulations currently in effect.

e. Faculty advisers assist students in defining goals to be reached during college, give information regarding appropriate curricula and courses, and discuss personal problems students may have, especially problems related to the student's progress and plans for subsequent work.

f. It is inevitable that a President confronted by our current complex international relations will want a staff near at hand to meet his needs and to be sensitive to his political position.

g. After being apprehended in the act of commission, the suspect was released on her own recognizance.

h. The current reciprocal trade agreement has ceased to be mutually beneficial.

i. Continued uninterrupted service depends upon your immediate settlement of all delinquent accounts.

j. I promise to pay such TOTAL (together with any other charges due thereon) subject to and in accordance with the agreement governing the use of such card.

3.28 Rewrite each of the following clichés, making the same point more vividly and clearly in your own language.

a. I was hungry enough to eat a horse.

b. We ran up against a brick wall.

c. Don't make a federal case out of it.

d. You're on thin ice with that excuse.

e. Now it's a whole new ball game.

f. That really gets my goat.

g. Since my back operation my tennis hasn't been up to par.

h. Our new branch manager really delivers the goods.

i. Ever since then she's kept her nose clean.

j. Here's where we separate the men from the mice.