Tutorial for Word Choice
Back to Tutorials
What is it?
What words you choose determine the tone of your work and how your reader responds to it. When you write, keep the following concerns in mind:
- It is important to decide what tone you want to use to influence your audience’s response.
- You must determine whether to use formal language.
- Be sure to avoid jargon and euphemisms.
- Avoid slang in formal writing.
- Avoid cliché.
- Avoid sexist terms that include or imply man.
- Avoid condescending or possibly offensive labels.
How to correct it
Correct word choices will help your reader understand your tone and meaning. Often it is very easy to change word choices.
It is important to decide what tone you want to use to influence your audience’s response.
Taking an informal or humorous approach to a terminal illness is inappropriate.
It’s too bad Frank’s brother has AIDS. It’s nasty to see him sick as a dog and covered with lesions.
It’s too bad Frank’s brother has AIDS. It’s hard to see him suffering so badly.
You must determine whether to use formal language. In a written letter to a public person, you should use formal language.
Dear Representative Wilson,
I think what you said at Thursday’s town meeting was stupid. Maybe you should have gotten a little more info on the death penalty debate before you went in on it.
Take it easy,
Dear Representative Wilson,
I disagree with what you said about the death penalty at Thursday’s town meeting. The death penalty is a complex issue, and I am concerned that you may have misled people with some inaccurate facts. If you would like to talk about this further, please do give me a call.
Before we can adopt an itinerary for our recreational destination, we must determine the parameters of our financial limitations and capabilities.
Before we can plan our family vacation, we have to decide on a budget.
Avoid slang in formal writing. Seek words that are usual but exact.
You should take Ms. Thibault’s class. She’s cool and she doesn’t wig out when you don’t turn stuff in.
You should take Ms. Thibault’s class. She has a positive attitude and doesn’t get upset about missing assignments.
Avoid cliché. Here are a few common examples of clichéd language:
above and beyond the call of duty in my wildest dreams beyond a shadow of a doubt last but not least bosom buddies make a long story short burn the midnight oil on the ball cool as a cucumber sell like hotcakes dead as a doornail slow as molasses hard as a rock tip of the iceberg high as a kite tried but true
Avoid terms that include or imply man.
Since the beginning of civilization, man has experimented with dance, poetry, and song.
In such cases, find an alternative that includes women as well as men.
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have experimented with dance, poetry, and song.
Avoid condescending or possibly offensive labels.
The Oriental bank teller asked me if I needed any help.
When describing any group, use the label or term that the members of that group prefer.
The Asian bank teller asked me if I needed any help.
(Also ask yourself whether the label is necessary. In this example, it may not be.)
The girls at work bought me a birthday card and flowers.
Do not use names that imply that a group of people are not taken seriously.
The women at work bought me a birthday card and flowers.