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Tutorial for Word Choice
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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:

  1. It is important to decide what tone you want to use to influence your audience’s response.
  2. You must determine whether to use formal language.
  3. Be sure to avoid jargon and euphemisms.
  4. Avoid slang in formal writing.
  5. Avoid cliché.
  6. Avoid sexist terms that include or imply man.
  7. 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.

  1. Appropriateness

    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.

    Incorrect

    It’s too bad Frank’s brother has AIDS. It’s nasty to see him sick as a dog and covered with lesions.

    Correct

    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.

    Incorrect

    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,
    Joe Donovan

    Correct

    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.
    Sincerely,
    Joe Donovan

    Be sure to avoid jargon and euphemisms. Jargon and euphemisms often mislead and confuse readers. When in doubt, choose the clearest, most accurate language possible.

    Incorrect

    Before we can adopt an itinerary for our recreational destination, we must determine the parameters of our financial limitations and capabilities.

    Correct

    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.

    Incorrect

    You should take Ms. Thibault’s class. She’s cool and she doesn’t wig out when you don’t turn stuff in.

    Correct

    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
  2. Bias-Free Language

    Avoid terms that include or imply man.

    Incorrect

    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.

    Correct

    Since the beginning of civilization, humans have experimented with dance, poetry, and song.

    Avoid condescending or possibly offensive labels.

    Incorrect

    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.

    Correct

    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.)

    Incorrect

    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.

    Correct

    The women at work bought me a birthday card and flowers.

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