WCS3: Choosing Precise Diction

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand connotations of words and choose words with connotations that work best for your purposes.
  2. Incorporate specific and concrete words as well as figurative language into your writing.
  3. Recognize and avoid clichés and improperly used words.

By using precise wording, you can most accurately relay your thoughts. Some strategies that can help you put your thoughts into words include focusing on denotations and connotations, balancing specific and concrete words with occasionally figurative language, and being on guard against clichés and misused words.

Focusing on Both Denotations and Connotations

Consider that the words “laid-back” and “lackadaisical” both mean “unhurried and slow-moving.” If someone said you were a “laid-back” student, you would likely be just fine with that comment, but if someone said you were a “lackadaisical” student, you might not like the connotation. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all have both denotations and connotations. The denotation is the definition of a word (think D for dictionary definition). The connotation is the emotional sense of a word. For example, look at these three words:

  • excited
  • agitated
  • flustered

The three words all mean to be stirred emotionally. In fact, you might see one of the words as a definition of another one of them. And you would definitely see the three words in a common list in a thesaurus. So the denotations for the three words are about the same. But the connotations are quite different. The word “excited” often has a positive, fun underlying meaning; “agitated” carries a sense of being upset; and “flustered” suggests a person is somewhat confused or nervous. When you are choosing a word to use, you should first think of a word based on its denotation. Then you should consider if the connotation fits your intent.

Choosing Specific and Concrete Words

You will always give clearer information if you write with specific words rather than general words. Look at the following example and think about how you could reword it using specific terms. Then check out the following revision to see one possible option.

Examples

Original: The animals got out and ruined the garden produce.

Revision: The horses got out and ruined the tomatoes and cucumbers.

Another way to make your writing clearer and more interesting is to use concrete words rather than abstract words. Abstract words do not have physical properties. But concrete words evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” This statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd since odd is an abstract word that doesn’t suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell. Look at the following example and think about how you could reword it using concrete words. Then check out the following revision to see one possible option.

Examples

Original: The horses got out and ruined the tomatoes and cucumbers.

Revision: The horses stampeded out and squished and squirted the tomatoes and cucumbers.

Study this table for some additional examples of words that provide clarity to writing.

General Words

Specific Words

children

Tess and Abby

animals

dogs

food

cheeseburger and a salad

Abstract Words

Concrete Words

noise

clanging and squealing

success

a job I like and enough money to live comfortably

civility

treating others with respect

Enhancing Writing with Figurative Language

Figurative language is a general term that includes writing tools such as alliteration, analogies, hyperbole, idioms, metaphors, onomatopoeia, personification, and similes. By using figurative language, you can make your writing both more interesting and easier to understand.

Figurative Language

Alliteration: Repetition of single letters or sets of letters.

  • Effect: Gives a poetic, flowing sound to words.
  • Example: Dana danced down the drive daintily.

Analogy: The comparison of familiar and unfamiliar ideas or items by showing a feature they have in common.

  • Effect: Makes an unfamiliar idea or item easier to understand.
  • Example: Writing a book is like raising a toddler. It takes all your time and attention, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it!

Hyperbole: A greatly exaggerated point.

  • Effect: Emphasizes the point.
  • Example: I must have written a thousand pages this weekend.

Idiom: A group of words that carries a meaning other than the actual meanings of the words.

  • Effect: A colorful way to send a message.
  • Example: I think this assignment will be a piece of cake.

Metaphor: An overall comparison of two ideas or items by stating that one is the other.

  • Effect: Adds the connotations of one compared idea to the other compared idea.
  • Example: This shirt is a rag.

Onomatopoeia: A single word that sounds like the idea it is describing.

  • Effect: A colorful way to describe an idea while adding a sense of sound.
  • Example: The jazz band was known for its wailing horns and clattering drums.

Personification: Attributing human characteristics to nonhuman items.

  • Effect: Adds depth such as humor, drama, or interest.
  • Example: The spatula told me that the grill was just a little too hot today.

Simile: Using the word “like” or “as” to indicate that one item or idea resembles another.

  • Effect: A colorful way to explain an item or idea.
  • Example: Hanging out with you is like eating watermelon on a summer day.

Using Clichés Sparingly

Clichés are phrases that were once original and interesting creations but that became so often used that they have ceased to be interesting and are now viewed as overworked. If you have a tendency to use a cliché or see one while you are proofreading, replace it with plain language instead.

Example

I’m loose as a goose today.

Replace cliché: I feel relaxed today.

Guarding Against Misusing Words

If you are uncertain about the meaning of a word, look the word up before you use it. Also, if your spell -checker identifies a misspelled word, don’t automatically accept the suggested replacement word. Make an informed decision about each word you use.

Look at Figure 17.1.

Equipment and memories can be photographic, but to look good in pictures is to be photogenic. To catch an error of this nature, you have to realize the word in question is a problem. The truth is, your best chance at knowing how a wide range of words should be used is to read widely and frequently and to pay attention to words as you read.


Adapted from Chapter 16 “Sentence Style” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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