Word Choice

Effective writing involves making conscious choices with words. 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 practice 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 following 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

Note that every dictionary is a separate and unique publication. So there is no such thing as just The Dictionary, nor is there just a Webster’s Dictionary (these are general-use terms that any book may employ). Also note that many search engines, such as Google, show glimpses of definitions from specific dictionaries as part of their search results, so “Google defines…” is not accurate. When citing the dictionary you’re using, state its actual title.

Highlight on The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary, sometimes referred to as the OED, is the largest and most comprehensive dictionary in existence. It includes all words in the English language, as well as the etymology of each word, as well as quoted examples of each word in use as found in texts throughout history. If your college provides you with access to it, you are wise to use it as your primary dictionary.


Like a dictionary, a thesaurus is another useful writing tool. A thesaurus gives you a list of synonyms, words that have nearly 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.

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 surface-level definition of a word. For example, the words house and home have the same denotation: they are both dwellings. A connotation, on the other hand, is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word. For house and home, the connotations are different: house feels rather neutral, but home feels warm and positive. At Halloween, you wouldn’t attend a “haunted home,” and you don’t feel the longing of being “housesick”–these feel wrong because they ignore connotations. Instead, you go to a “haunted house,” and you feel “homesick.” The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, neutral, or otherwise. Stay continuously aware of the connotations of the words you choose. And when uncertain about a word’s connotations, find the word used in professional articles or books, and study its implications carefully.


  • Denotation: Exceptionally thin and slight or meager in body or size.
  • Word used in a sentence: Although he was a premature baby and a scrawny child, Martin has developed into a strong man.
  • Connotation: (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.


  • Denotation: Lacking sufficient flesh, very thin.
  • Word used in a sentence: Skinny jeans have become very fashionable in the past couple of years.
  • Connotation: (Positive) Based on cultural and personal impressions of what it means to be skinny, the reader may have positive connotations of the word skinny.


  • Denotation: Lacking or deficient in flesh; containing little or no fat.
  • Word used in a sentence: My brother has a lean figure, whereas I have a more muscular build.
  • Connotation: (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.

Exercise 1

In each of the following items, you will find words with similar denotations. Identify the words’ connotations as positive, negative, or neutral by writing the word in the appropriate box.

  1. curious, nosy, interested
  2. lazy, relaxed, slow
  3. courageous, foolhardy, assured
  4. new, newfangled, modern
  5. mansion, shack, residence
  6. spinster, unmarried woman, career woman
  7. giggle, laugh, cackle
  8. boring, routine, prosaic
  9. noted, notorious, famous
  10. assertive, confident, pushy
Positive Negative Neutral

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 correspondences, such as e-mails, 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 e-mails or during meetings may convey the wrong message or even mistakenly offend someone.

Exercise 2

Edit the following paragraph by replacing the slang words and phrases with more formal language.

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 practicing this speech 24/7, and I still bombed. It was ten 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 his or her 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.

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 clinch my fists so hard that I leave fingernail dents in my palms.

Exercise 3

Revise the following sentences by replacing the clichés with fresh, original descriptions.

  1. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
  2. Fran had an axe to grind with Benny, and she planned to confront him that night at the party.
  3. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
  4. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too many days of work.
  5. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
  6. I always try to give 110%
  7. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jeff a taste of his own medicine.
  8. Time sure does fly when you are having fun.
  9. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.
  10. Jordan was so pressed with responsibilities that he felt like he carried the world on his shoulders.

Avoiding Overly General Words

Specific words and images make your writing clearer, more precise, and often more interesting. 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 color, texture, sound, and even smell to your writing.

  • General: My new puppy is cute.
  • Specific: My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with the biggest black eyes I have ever seen.
  • General: My teacher told us that lying is bad.
  • Specific: My teacher, Ms. Atwater, created a presentation detailing exactly how lying is immoral and dangerous.

For more information on this, see the section Specificity.

Exercise 4

Revise the following sentences by replacing the overly general words with more precise and attractive language.

  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.


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