2.2 Word Choice


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

  • commonly confused words
  • avoiding slang, , and overly general words

Experienced writers know that deliberate, careful word selection can lead to more effective writing. This chapter looks at commonly confused words and types of words to avoid.

Commonly Confused Words

Read the following list, paying special attention to words that are challenging for you.

Accept, Except

  • Accept () means to take or agree to something offered: They accepted our proposal for the conference.
  • Except (conjunction) means only or but: We could fly except the tickets cost too much.

Affect, Effect

  • Affect (verb) means to create a change: Hurricane winds affect the amount of rainfall.
  • Effect (noun) means an outcome or result: Heavy rains will have an effect on crops.

Its, It’s

  • Its () shows possession: The butterfly flapped its wings.
  • It’s () joins the words “it” and “is”: It’s a beautiful butterfly.

Loose, Lose

  • Loose () describes something that is not tight or is detached: Without a belt, his pants are loose at the waist.
  • Lose (verb) means to cease to have: She will lose more weight while training for the marathon.

Of, Have

  • Of () means from or about: I studied maps of the city.
  • Have (verb) means to possess: I have friends who help me move.
  • Have (linking verb) is used to connect verbs: I should have helped her.

Quite, Quiet, Quit

  • Quite () means really or truly: My work will require quite a lot of concentration.
  • Quiet (adjective) means not loud: I need a quiet room to study.
  • Quit (verb) means to stop or to end: I will quit when I am tired.

Than, Then

  • Than (conjunction) is used to connect two or more items when comparing: Registered nurses have less training than doctors.
  • Then (adverb) means next or at a specific time: Doctors first complete medical school and then open a practice.

Their, They’re, There

  • Their (pronoun) shows possession: The Townsends feed their dogs twice a day.
  • They’re (contraction) joins the words “they” and “are”: They’re the sweetest dogs in the neighborhood.
  • There (adverb) indicates a particular place: The dogs’ bowls are over there.
  • There (pronoun) indicates the presence of something: There are more treats handed out if the dogs behave.

To, Two, Too

  • To (preposition) indicates movement: Let’s go to the circus.
  • To is also a word that completes a certain type of verb: to play, to ride, to watch.
  • Two (adjective) is the number after one. It describes how many: Two clowns squirted the elephants with water.
  • Too (adverb) means also or very: The crowd was too loud, so we left.

Who’s, Whose

  • Who’s (contraction) joins the words “who” and “is” or “has”: Who’s the new student? Who’s met him?
  • Whose (pronoun) shows possession: Whose schedule allows them to take the new student tour?

Your, You’re

  • Your (pronoun) shows possession: Your book bag is unzipped.
  • You’re (contraction) joins the words “you” and “are”: You’re the girl with the unzipped book bag.


Homonyms are words that sound like each other but have different meanings. For example, a “witch” is a person thought to have magical powers, but “which” is a question word used to choose between options.

Following is a list of commonly confused homonyms. Read through the list, paying particular attention to words you may have found confusing in the past.

Lead, Led

  • Lead can be used as a noun to name a type of metal: The lead pipes in my home need to be replaced. It can also refer to a position of advantage: Our team is in the lead.  As a verb, means to guide or direct: The girl will lead the horse by its halter.
  • Led (verb) is the of “lead”: The young volunteer led the patrons through the museum.

Passed, Past

  • Passed (verb) means to move: He passed slower cars using the left lane.
  • Past (noun) means having taken place before the present: The argument happened in the past, so there is no use in dwelling on it.

Principle, Principal

  • Principle (noun) is a fundamental concept that is accepted as true: The principle of human equality is an important foundation for peace.
  • Principal (noun) has two meanings. It can mean the original amount of debt on which interest is calculated: The payment covered both principal and interest. Or it can mean a person who is the main authority of a school: The principal held a conference for parents and teachers.

Threw, Through

  • Threw (verb) is the past tense of the word “throw”: She threw the football with perfect form.
  • Through (preposition) indicates movement: She walked through the door and out of his life. (Note: “Thru” is a non-standard spelling of “through” and should be avoided.)

Where, Wear

  • Where (adverb) is the place in which something happens: Where is the restaurant?
  • Wear (verb) is to have on one’s body: I wear my hiking shoes when I climb.

Whether, Weather

  • Whether (conjunction) means expressing a doubt or choice: I don’t know whether to go to Paris or Hawaii.
  • Weather (noun) is a quality of the atmosphere: The weather could be rainy.

Exercise 1

In your notebook, write the following sentences, selecting the correct word to fill the space.

  1. The news predicts good ________ (weather, whether) for our trip.
  2. My little cousin turns ________ (to, too, two) years old tomorrow.
  3. The next-door neighbor’s dog is ________ (quite, quiet, quit) loud. He barks constantly.
  4. ________ (Your, You’re) mother called this morning to talk about the party.
  5. I like to ________ (where, wear) unique clothing from thrift stores with no company logos.
  6. I would rather eat a slice of chocolate cake ________ (than, then) eat a chocolate muffin.
  7. Everyone goes ________ (through, threw) hardships in life.
  8. I don’t care ________ (whose, who’s) coming to the party.
  9. Do you have any ________ (loose, lose) change to pay the parking meter?
  10. Father must ________ (have, of) left his briefcase at the office.
  11. Marjorie felt like she was being ________ (led, lead) on a wild goose chase, and she did not like it one bit.
  12. Before playing ice hockey, I was supposed to read the contract, but I only skimmed it, which may ________ (affect, effect) my understanding.
  13. The party ________ (their, there, they’re) hosting will be in June at ________ (their, there, they’re) ranch.
  14. ________ (Except, Accept) for Ajay, we all had tickets to the game.
  15. It must be fall, because ________ (it’s, its) getting darker earlier.

Types of Words to Avoid


Slang is informal, non-standard English. “Non-standard” means “not accepted by most people as correct.” For example, the following words are slang:

lame, chill, what’s up, awesome, hang out, aced, my bad, crash, freebie

Slang is used by a specific group and often changes over time. For example, the word “cool” was common slang in the 1960s, whereas “cold” is common slang now. Slang is appropriate between friends, but should not be used in academic or business 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. 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.


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

We aren’t all poets, but writing that uses clichés suffers from a lack of originality. Avoiding clichés will help your writing feel original and fresh. Even plain wording is better than a cliché. 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 details.

Exercise 3

In your notebook, rewrite the following sentences, replacing the with fresh, original descriptions. You don’t have to be poetic; just be plain and clear.

  1. Chuny had an ax to grind with Ben.
  2. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy seventh graders.
  3. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too much work.
  4. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
  5. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
  6. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.

Overly General Words

Specific words and images make writing more interesting. General words make writing flat and boring. 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. Traveling to outer space would be amazing.
  3. Jane came home after a bad day at the office.
  4. I thought Milo’s essay was interesting.
  5. Tropical fish are pretty.
  6. The goalie blocked the shot.


  • Be aware of commonly confused words, including homonyms.
  • Slang, cliches, and overly general words should be avoided in college writing.


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