Word Use

Choosing the right word at the right time is often a challenging task because it requires recognizing the role context plays in determining the best means of communication. Choosing the right word to match the meaning you intend is an equally challenging task and a process that requires a fair amount of trial and error. Below you'll find a few guidelines to help you in the selection process:

  1. Consider what might be the right word(s) in a given context by evaluating your audience, their needs, and their understanding of your subject matter.
  2. Whenever possible, avoid clichés and empty words.
  3. Find the clearest and most direct way to articulate ideas

1. Use the Right Word

A word is "right" when it is used appropriately and in a context where its intended meaning, tone, and implications correspond to the those associated with it. In other words, the writer should understand and be comfortable with what the word means both denotatively and connotatively.

Denotation is the definition of a word as you would find it in a dictionary, while connotation refers to the implied meanings carried by a word. Connotations build from how a word is used in particular contexts. Moreover, two words might have the same denotative meaning, but differ in their connotations. For example, home and house both refer to 'a shelter in which one or more people live.' However, while house refers primarily to the physical structure, home generally refers not only to the structure itself but also to a person's relationship to that structure, which connotes belonging and warmth.

Some words have different meanings, but are so closely related that there is confusion about their proper use. Consider the words continuously and continually, for example. Continuously means 'unceasingly' and continually means 'regularly,' so they are not properly interchangeable, and their similarity often causes confusion.

Another example is the difference between affect and effect. Because of similar spelling and pronunciation, many people use them interchangeably. To add to the confusion, each can function both as a noun and a verb. As a general rule, when talking about one thing influencing another, use affect as a verb to mean 'to influence,' and use effect as a noun to mean 'a result' or 'the impact something or someone has on something or someone else.' You can find a description of the other uses of affect and effect on Dictionary.com.

Sometimes a good dictionary will include the connotations of a word, but often it will contain only a basic definition. The most reliable way of learning how a word is generally used comes from careful observation of how a word is used in specific contexts.

2. Avoid Clichés and Empty Words

The problem with using clichés and empty words when trying to make your ideas more accessible to readers is that you can end up having the opposite effect. Empty words are just that—words that take up space but add little meaning; clichés are overused expressions that have lost their meaning or rhetorical punch. For example, even though readers would certainly follow your meaning if you wrote:

Milton offers many comparative views on God and mankind. The bottom line, however, is that mankind can never be perfect, but God can.

The rhetorical force of your statement is diluted by relying on a well-worn phrase that may have once been effective in making a point—particularly since the expression originated in reference to the figures on the last line of a financial statement— but is currently standing in for a more precise articulation of the writer's assertion. Additionally, context here (discussing Milton's views on mankind) renders the bottom line a somewhat mismatched expression for the subject matter. A better choice in this instance might be, 'Milton ultimately sides with the belief that mankind can never be perfect, but God can.'

Empty words are words that are not necessary to communicating your meaning because they do not add new information. Consider these examples:

If we remove the phrases "in color" and "the field of" from 2.1 and 2.2, the effect is dramatic: "The book is white" and "I'm majoring in accounting" are much more direct. The edited phrases are "empty" because they add no new information to the sentence.

3. Be Clear and Direct

Simplicity ensures clarity. Choose the words that clearly express your ideas. Words you rarely use or "big words," while often invoked to give the appearance of mastery and expertise, can actually confuse readers, particularly if a word is unexpected in its context or suggests inappropriate connotations. Nevertheless, there are cases when you may want to use a word that is not common in everyday speech because there are no other words that convey the same idea. Being clear and direct does not preclude you from using those words as long as you use them correctly and as long as the context is right.

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