2.3 Word Choice


This section of Ch. 2 will cover the following topics:

  • using a dictionary and thesaurus
  • recognizing
  • avoiding slang, , and overly general words

Effective writing involves making conscious choices about which words best convey your ideas to the reader. Precise selection of your words will help you be more clearly understood.

If you have always been an reader, your vocabulary is probably large and you generally use words correctly. The best time to develop language skills is as a child, but it’s never too late to start. The more you read, the larger your vocabulary gets and the more the rules of language use are automatically embedded in your brain.

But studying how to use words can also expand your vocabulary and increase your ability to use words correctly.

Use a Dictionary and Thesaurus

Even professional writers need help with the meaning, spelling, pronunciation, and use of some words. They rely on dictionaries to help them write. No one knows every word in the English language and their multiple uses and meanings, so all writers, from beginners to professionals, can benefit from using a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most good 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 in a sentence
  • Definition: the meaning or meanings of the word
  • : words that have similar meanings
  • Etymology: the history of the word

Look at the following dictionary entry and see if you can identify parts from the list above:

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 beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story, having no existence in fact.—myth • ic, myth • i • cal

A thesaurus gives a list of synonyms. It also lists . A thesaurus will help you find the perfect word to convey your ideas. It will also help you learn more words. But be careful: never simply replace one word with another unless you are sure you know what the replacement word means!

Here is an example thesaurus entry. It gives the word, its part of speech, an example of its use, and synonyms and antonyms.

precocious adj, She’s such a precocious child.: uncommonly smart, mature, advanced, bright, brilliant, gifted, quick, clever. Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

Every time you use a dictionary or a thesaurus, the number of ways you can express yourself grows and the correctness of your writing improves.

Recognizing Connotations

“Denotation” is the dictionary definition of a word, its meaning. A “connotation” is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word. The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral. Writers must keep connotative meanings in mind when choosing a word.

Look at the difference illustrated here:


  • Denotation or literal definition: exceptionally thin and slight
  • In a sentence: Although he was a scrawny child, Martin developed into a strong man.
  • Connotation: (negative) In this sentence, the word “scrawny” can mean a weakness or a personal flaw.


  • Denotation or literal definition: having little fat
  • In a sentence: Skinny jeans have become very fashionable.
  • Connotation: (positive) In this sentence, the word “skinny” has positive cultural and personal impressions. Note that in the past, “skinny” had negative connotations, meaning less than normal.


  • Denotation or literal definition: lacking or deficient in flesh
  • In a sentence: My brother is lean, but I have a more muscular build.
  • Connotation: (neutral) The word “lean” does not evoke an overly thin person like the word “scrawny,” nor does it imply the positive cultural impressions of the word “skinny.” It is merely a neutral descriptive word.

These words have very similar denotative meanings; however, their connotations differ dramatically.

Exercise 1

In your notebook, draw three columns and label them “positive,” “negative” and “neutral.” Identify the connotations of the words below by putting one word from each set in the appropriate box. For example, the word “curious” is neutral, but “nosy” is negative, while “interested” is positive. If a word is unfamiliar, look it up in the dictionary.

  1. curious, nosy, interested
  2. lazy, relaxed, slow
  3. mansion, shack, residence
  4. spinster, unmarried woman, career woman
  5. giggle, laugh, cackle
  6. boring, routine, prosaic
  7. noted, notorious, famous
  8. assertive, confident, pushy

Avoiding Slang

Slang is informal words that are non-standard English. “Non-standard” means “not accepted by most people as correct.” Slang is language used by a specific group and often changes over time as new fads appear. For example, the word “cool” was common slang in the 1960s, whereas “cold” is common slang these days.

Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context, but should be avoided in academic writing.

Exercise 2

Rewrite the following paragraph in your notebook, 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 could not stop fidgeting. I was so stressed out about being up there. I’d 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. I wonder if I have the guts to do it again.

Avoiding Clichés

Clichés are expressions that have lost their effectiveness because they are overused. For example, the phrase “fluffy white clouds” is boring because we’ve heard it a million times. The poet Rupert Brooke called clouds “rounds of snow.” Better, right?

We aren’t all poets, but writing that uses cliches suffers from a lack of originality and insight. Avoiding clichés will help your writing feel original and fresh. Here is an example:

  • Cliché: When my brother and I get into an argument, he says things that make my blood boil.
  • Plain: When my brother and I get into an argument, he says things that make me really angry.
  • Original: When my brother and I get into an argument, he says things that make me want to go to the gym and punch the bag for a few hours.

Notice that it isn’t the use of fancy words that makes an image vivid; it’s the use of specific examples.

Exercise 3

In your notebook, rewrite the following sentences, replacing the with fresh, original descriptions.

  1. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
  2. Chuny had an ax to grind with Ben.
  3. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy seventh graders.
  4. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too much work.
  5. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
  6. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
  7. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jeff a taste of his own medicine.
  8. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.

Avoiding Overly General Words

Specific words and images make writing more interesting to read. General words make writing flat and boring. Replace general language with details to bring your words to life. Add words that provide color, texture, sound, even smell.

Which sentence in each pair is stronger, more visual, and more fun to read?

  • My new puppy is cute.
  • My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with eyes like black olives.
  • My teacher told us plagiarism is bad.
  • My teacher, Ms. Atwater, explained exactly how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

Exercise 4

In your notebook, revise the following sentences by replacing the overly general words with more precise and interesting language. Don’t overdo; just switch out something general for a specific detail.

  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 interesting.
  5. The dog walked up the street.
  6. The coal miners were tired after a long day.
  7. Tropical fish are pretty.
  8. The goalie blocked the shot.


  • Using a dictionary and thesaurus will improve your writing by expanding your word choice.
  • Connotations of words may be positive, neutral, or negative. Be aware of connotations when choosing words.
  • Slang, cliches, and overly general words should be avoided in writing.


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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.