Word Choice in Writing Study Guide (page 2)
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
This lesson focuses on diction, the words writers choose to express meaning. A small change in word choice can have a big impact. You'll learn how to watch for word choice clues that reveal meaning.
What made Sherlock Holmes such a good detective? Was he just that much smarter than everyone else? Did he have some sort of magical powers? Could he somehow see into the future or into the past? No. Sherlock Holmes was no fortune-teller or magician. So what was his secret? His powers of observation.
One of the things active readers do is look for clues. So far you've learned, among other things, to look for clues for determining the main idea, the structure, and the point of view. Now we're going to focus on the clues writers offer through diction: the specific words writers choose to describe people, places, and things. A writer's word choice can reveal an awful lot about how the writer feels about his or her subject.
Making Observations and Drawing Conclusions
Writers make a lot of decisions. They decide what to say and how to say it. They choose whether to clearly state their ideas or suggest them. If they only suggest them, then they need to decide what clues to leave for their readers, and who must find and interpret those clues.
By looking closely, you can see the writer's clues that will help you understand the text. Word choice clues can come in the following forms:
- particular words and phrases that the author uses
- the way those words and phrases are arranged in sentences
- word or sentence patterns that are repeated
- important details about people, places, and things
Detective work is a two-part process. First, a detective must find the clues. But the clues alone don't solve the case. The detective must also draw conclusions based on those clues. These conclusions are also called inferences. Inferences are conclusions based on reasons, facts, or evidence.
The same sort of process takes place in reading. You need to look for clues and then draw conclusions based on those clues. What is the writer trying to say? Good conclusions come from good observations. To be a better reader, be more like Sherlock Holmes: be more observant. In The Adventures of the Blanched Soldier, Sherlock Holmes tells a client: "I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see." To be a good reader, you just have to train yourself to notice what you see!
Observing Word Choice
Here's a quick test of your observation skills. Read the next two sentences.
|A:||A school uniform policy would reduce disciplinary problems.|
|B:||A school uniform policy would minimize disciplinary problems.|
It's not hard to see the difference between these sentences. In sentence A, the writer says the policy will reduce disciplinary problems; sentence B, on the other hand, uses the word minimize. No big deal, right? After all, both sentences say that the uniform policy will result in fewer disciplinary problems. But there is a difference. One sentence is much stronger than the other because one word is actually much stronger than the other. To minimize is to reduce to the smallest possible amount. Thus, while both writers agree that a uniform dress code would lessen disciplinary problems, the writer of sentence B feels that it would nearly eliminate them, or at least eliminate as far as is humanly possible. The writer doesn't need to spell this out for you because his word choice should make his position clear.
Here's another example.
|A:||The school board instituted a strict new dress code.|
|B:||The school board instituted a tyrannical new dress code.|
Do these two sentences mean the same thing? Again, not quite. Both strict and tyrannical show that the dress code is tough, but they suggest very different levels of toughness. A strict dress code is not as tough as one that is tyrannical. Nor is it as troubling. After all, tyrannical means controlling others through force or threats. Thus, strict suggests that the policy is tough, but may be acceptable. Tyrannical suggests that the policy is tough and unacceptable.
Denotation and Connotation
Even words that seem to mean the same thing have subtly different meanings and sometimes not-sosubtle effects. For example, look at the words slim and thin. If you say your aunt is thin, that means one thing. If you say she is slim, that means something a little bit different. That's because slim has a different connotation from thin. Connotation is a word's suggested or implied meaning; it's what the word makes you think or feel. Slim and thin have almost the same denotation—their dictionary definition—but slim suggests more grace and class than thin. Slim is a very positive word. It suggests that your aunt is healthy and fit. Thin, however, suggests that your aunt is a little bit too skinny for her own good health. Thin and slim, then, have different connotations. So the word you choose to describe your aunt can tell others a lot. Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
Reading between the Lines
Paying attention to word choice is particularly important when the main idea of a passage isn't clear. A writer's word choice doesn't just affect meaning; it creates it. For example, look at the following description from a teacher's evaluation for a student applying to a special foreign language summer camp. There's no topic sentence, but if you use your powers of observation, you should be able to tell how the writer feels about her subject.
As a student, Jane usually completes her work on time and checks it carefully. She speaks French well and is learning to speak with less of an American accent. She has often been a big help to other students who are just beginning to learn the language.
What message does this passage send about Jane? Is she the best French student the writer has ever had? Is she one of the worst? Is she average? To answer this question, you have to make an inference, and you must support your inference with specific observations. What makes you come to the conclusion that you do?
The diction of the paragraph reveals that this is a positive evaluation, but not a glowing recommendation. Here are some of the specific observations you might have made to support this conclusion:
- The writer uses the word usually in the first sentence. This means that Jane is good about meeting deadlines for work, but not great; she doesn't always hand in her work on time.
- The first sentence also says that Jane checks her work carefully. Although Jane may sometimes hand in work late, at least she always makes sure it's quality work. She's not sloppy.
- The second sentence says Jane speaks French well. This is a positive word, but not a very strong one. Again, she's good, but not great. A stronger word like fluently or masterfully would make a big difference.
- The second sentence also tells us she's "learning to speak with less of an American accent." This suggests that she has a strong accent and needs to improve in this area. It also suggests, though, that she is already making progress.
- The third sentence tells us that she often helps "students who are just beginning to learn the language." From this we can conclude that Jane has indeed mastered the basics. Otherwise, how could she be a big help to students who are just starting to learn?
By looking at the passage carefully, then, you can see how the writer feels about her subject.
Sherlock Holmes' secret was his power of observation. You, too, can learn to notice what you see by looking carefully at what you read. Notice the specific words the writer has used. Remember that writers choose their words carefully. They know that each word has a specific effect, and they want just the right word to convey their ideas.
SKILL BUILDING UNTIL NEXT TIME
- Think about how you choose your words. Do you use different words for different people? Imagine you are describing an event to a family member and then to a classmate. Would you describe it the same way? Or would your word choice be different? Do you think carefully about what you say and which words you will use? How aware are you of your word choice? Write down both descriptions and compare them.
- Take another look at something you read recently. This could be an ad or a full-length article. What words does it use to appeal to its audience? Why are they effective?
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- First Grade Sight Words List
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Grammar Lesson: Complete and Simple Predicates
- Definitions of Social Studies
- Child Development Theories
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- How to Practice Preschool Letter and Name Writing
- Social Cognitive Theory
- Theories of Learning