SAT Essay Help: Word Choice (page 4)
Words have power. Used well, they convey your ideas accurately and precisely. Used poorly, they can confuse, misinform, and even make your reader think you're not as smart as you really are. In this chapter, we'll examine the syntax (word choice) issues you need to understand to write a great essay.
"A well chosen word has often sufficed to stop a flying army, to change defeat into victory, and to save an empire."
—EMILE DE GIRARDIN
The words you use must deliver the maximum impact. Choosing appropriate, specific adjectives and adverbs (modifiers) makes your point clear, and you can convey ideas with better style and more shades of meaning. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
Tom puts his hat on and walks away.
Tom Wessels slaps his felt hat over his bushy hair and starts striding away with the confident gait of a hiker.
The latter example allows you to hear the voice and impressions of the writer, giving a more accurate and interesting picture of the action. The first sentence is simply dull. Using modifiers allows your reader to more closely connect to your text and gives your writing a visual and emotional power that is more memorable.
Examples of Powerful, Precise Adjectives and Adverbs
- directly involved
- unflagging dedication
- promptly accepted
- productive discussion
- grueling game
- instinctively aware
- influential teacher
- invaluable learning experience
Pay attention to the meaning of every word you use. There are many English words that look and/or sound similar but have very different meanings. If you are unsure of a definition, look it up. One wrong word—using illicit when you mean elicit, for example—can completely change the meaning of an otherwise well-written sentence. A number of these errors can also make your reader question your grasp of the language.
The following is a list of the most commonly confused word pairs or groups, with brief definitions. Check your essay for them, making sure you have used the correct word. You might want to make flash cards for each pair or group and use the cards to learn the definitions so your future writing improves as well.
Commonly Confused Words
|access||means of approaching|
|effect (verb)||to bring about|
|assure||to certify, convince|
|ensure||to make certain, guarantee|
|insure||to insure, back up financially|
|besides||in addition to|
|bibliography||list of writings|
|biography||a life story|
|desert||arid, sandy region|
|dessert||sweet served after a meal|
|disperse||to spread out|
|disinterested||no strong opinion either way|
|elicit||to stir up|
|personal||pertaining to the individual|
|principal (noun)||person in charge|
|their||belonging to them|
|there||in a place|
|who||substitute for he, she, or they|
|whom||substitute for him, her, or them|
|your||belonging to you|
Choosing the right words also means being aware of the many commonly misused ones. You may find examples of misused words in the media, on billboards and other signs, in speech, and in everyday writing. Even when used incorrectly, many these words can look acceptable to some writers. But they will stand out as glaring errors to admissions officers. Take the time to learn them, and avoid embarrassing mistakes.
Many of these misused words appear in Writing and Critical reading multiple-choice questions. Learn them now and keep an eye out for them later.
Commonly Misused Words
|among||a comparison or reference to three or more people or things|
|between||a comparion or reference to two or more people or things|
|amount||when you cannot count the items to which you are referring to, and when referring to single nouns|
|number||when you can count the items to which you are referring to, and when referring to plural nouns|
|eager||enthusiastic or looking forward to something|
|bring||moving something toward the speaker|
|take||moving something away from the speaker|
|can||used to state ability|
|may||used to state permission|
|each other||when referring to two people or things|
|one another||when referring to three or more people or things|
|e.g.||an abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, meaning free example or for example|
|i.e.||an abbreviation for the Latin id est, meaning it is or that is|
|feel bad||used when talking about emotional feelings|
|feel badly||used when talking about physical feelings|
|fewer||when you can count the items|
|less||when you cannot count the items|
|good||an adjective, which describes a person, place, or thing|
|well||an adverb, which describes an action or verb|
|its||belonging to it|
|it's||contraction of it is|
|lay||the action of placing or putting an item somewhere; a transitive verb, meaning something you do to something else|
|lie||to recline or be place; an intransitive verb, meaning it does not act on anything or anyone else|
|more||used to compare one thing to one other thing|
|most||used to compare one thing to more than one other thing|
|that||a pronoun that introduces a restrictive (or essential) clause|
|which||a pronoun that introduces a nonrestrictive (or unessential) clause|
"You have such strong words at command, that they make the smallest argument seem formidable."
When a verb is active, the subject of the sentence performs an action. In a passive construction, the subject receives the action.
- Active: The bird ate the birdseed.
- Passive: The birdseed was eaten by the bird.
In the first sentence, the bird (the subject) performs the action, ate. In the second sentence, does the subject birdseed do anything? No; instead, it is acted upon.
Note how many more words it takes to communicate the same idea in the passive voice. This is one reason the active voice is preferred (and this also applies to your application essay). It is more direct and concise.
- Instead of: The bank account was closed by Sheila.
- Write: Sheila closed the bank account.
- Instead of: The active voice should be used by essay writers.
- Write: Essay writers should use the active voice.
That said, there are some instances when you should use the passive voice. Choose it in the following three situations:
- You want to deliberately emphasize the receiver of the action instead of the performer: My fender was dented three times in that parking lot.
- The performer is unknown: Mani's wallet was mysteriously returned.
- You want to avoid mentioning the performer of the action: The experiment resulted in a new theory.
"Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall."
—OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
Using ambiguous words (that is, words with two or more possible meanings), or using the right words in the wrong order, can cause confusion. The meaning understood by the reader may not be the one intended by the writer. Here are two important guidelines to follow in order to avoid ambiguity:
- Refrain from using words and phrases with more than one meaning.
- Be sure the words you use are in the right order to convey your intended meaning.
For example: During my photojournalism class, I shot the model.
This sentence can be read two ways: You shot pictures with a camera, or you shot the model with a gun. This kind of confusion can happen whenever a word has more than one possible meaning. During my photojournalism class, I took pictures of the model is a better sentence.
Example: My customer ate the sandwich with the blue hat.
Here, the word order of the sentence, not an individual word, causes the confusion. Did the customer eat her sandwich with her hat? Because the phrase with the blue hat is in the wrong place, the meaning of the sentence is unclear. Try instead: My customer with the blue hat ate the sandwich.
Correcting Ambiguous Language
- Ambiguous: When reaching for the phone, the coffee spilled on the table.
- Clear: The coffee spilled on the table when you reached for the phone.
- Ambiguous: I went to see the doctor with a severe headache.
- Clear: I went to see the doctor because I had a severe headache.
- Ambiguous: The famous artist drew stares when he entered the room.
- Clear: The famous artist received stares when he entered the room.
- Ambiguous: When writing on the computer, the spell checker often comes in handy.
- Clear: The spell checker often comes in handy when I am writing on the computer.
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