Word Choice


You can increase the clarity of your writing by using concrete, specific words rather than abstract, general ones.

Learning Objectives

Classify words as specific or general

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • When possible, replace vague generalizations with more specific and concise wording. This clarifies for your reader the topic of your paper and the conceptual plane of your ensuing argument.
  • You can increase the clarity of your writing by using specific words rather than general ones.
  • Your objective when choosing words is not to avoid general words altogether, but rather to avoid using them when your readers will want more specific ones.

Key Terms

  • specific words: Precise words from a narrower scope.
  • general words: All-inclusive words from a broader scope.

Through precise word selection, you can increase the clarity of your argument by enabling your readers to grasp your intended meaning quickly and accurately. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that your word choices affect a reader’s attitudes toward your presentation and your subject matter. Therefore, you also need to choose words that will convey your ideas clearly to your readers. This kind of precise writing will help your audience understand your argument.

General vs. Specific Words

Almost anything can be described either in general words or in specific ones. General words and specific words are not opposites. General words cover a broader spectrum with a single word than specific words. Specific words narrow the scope of your writing by providing more details. For example, “car” is a general term that could be made more specific by writing “Honda Accord.” Specific words are a subset of general words. You can increase the clarity of your writing by choosing specific words over general words. Specific words help your readers understand precisely what you mean in your writing. Here’s an example of general and specific words in a sentence:

  • General: She said, “I don’t want you to go.”
  • Specific: She murmured, “I don’t want you to go.”

The words “said” and “murmured” are similar. They both are a form of verbal communication. However, “murmured” gives the sentence a different feeling from “said.” Thus, as a writer, choosing specific words over general words can add description to and change the mood of your writing.

In academic writing, it is important to find a balance between general and specific words. Always using specific terms can overwhelm the reader and detract from your argument. Also, depending on what you are writing, general terms may be more appropriate than specific words. In scientific, technical, and other specialized fields, writers often need to make general points, describe general circumstances, or provide general guidance for action. For example, if you are writing a paper on best practices in business, you may write one of the following sentences:

  • In the normal course of procedure, it is advised to avoid modifications in hiring procedures after they have been established.
  • Normally, it is best to avoid changing hiring processes after they have been established.

Both of these sentences make the same statement, but they may not both be appropriate for your paper. Writing with precision helps hold your audience’s attention. Making statements too wordy in an argument can be dull for your readers. Think of your audience while writing. Sometimes it is best to keep your writing simple and precise. The more precise your writing is, the easier it will be for your reader to understand your argument. Your objective when choosing words is to blend general and specific words together within your writing when appropriate, ensuring you keep your reader’s attention while conveying your message.

Using the Dictionary and Thesaurus Effectively

Because words can differ depending on their context, it is a good idea to check the definition and spelling of any tricky words in a dictionary.

Learning Objectives

Select appropriate tools to help with word choice

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Spell-check features in word processors are helpful tools, but they will not catch all mistakes.
  • A thesaurus can add variety to dry prose by helping you identify words with similar meanings.
  • Always use a dictionary to confirm the meaning of any word about which you are unsure.
  • Diction is important because it refers to the writer’s or speaker’s distinctive vocabulary choices and style, and it impacts word choice and syntax.

Key Terms

  • thesaurus: A publication, usually in the form of a book, that provides synonyms (and sometimes antonyms) for the words of a given language.
  • dictionary: A reference work with a list of words from one or more languages, normally ordered alphabetically and explaining each word’s meaning and sometimes containing information on its etymology, usage, translations, and other data.

Using the Dictionary and Thesaurus Effectively

Always use a dictionary to confirm the meaning of any word about which you are unsure. Although the built-in dictionary that comes with your word processor is a great time-saver, it falls far short of college-edition dictionaries, or the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). If the spell-check tool suggests bizarre corrections for one of your words, it could be that you know a word it does not. When in doubt, always check a dictionary to be sure.

Vocabulary Choice and Style

If it feels like you keep repeating a word throughout your writing, pull out a thesaurus for ideas on different, more creative choices. A thesaurus can add some color and depth to a piece that may otherwise seem repetitive and mundane. However, make sure that the word you substitute has the meaning you intend to convey. Thesauruses provide words with similar meanings, not identical meanings. If you are unsure about the precise meaning of a replacement word, look up the new word in a dictionary.

Word Accuracy

Regardless of the words you use, you must use them accurately. Usage errors can distract readers from your argument. How can you ensure that words are used accurately? Unfortunately, there is no easy way, but there are some solutions. You can revisit a text that uses the word and observe how the word is used in that instance. Additionally, you can consult a dictionary whenever you are uncertain. Be especially careful when using words that are not yet part of your usual vocabulary.


Connotation is the extended or suggested meaning of a word beyond its literal meaning. For example, “flatfoot” and “police detective” are often thought to be synonyms, but they connote very different things: “flatfoot” suggests a plodding, perhaps not very bright cop, while “police detective” suggests an intelligent professional.

Verbs, too, have connotations. For instance, to “suggest” that someone has overlooked a key fact is not the same as to “insinuate” it. To “devote” your time to working on a client’s project is not the same as to “spend” your time on it. The connotations of your words can shape your audience ‘s perception of your argument. For example:

  • Our sales team is constantly trying to locate new markets for our various product lines.
  • Our sales team is constantly driving to locate new markets for our various product lines.


“Register” refers to a word’s association with certain situations or contexts. In a restaurant ad, for example, we might expect to see the claim that it offers “amazingly delicious food.” However, we would not expect to see a research company boast in a proposal for a government contract that it is capable of conducting “amazingly good studies.” Here, the word “amazingly” is in the register of consumer advertising, but not in the register of research proposals.

Being aware of the connotation and register of the words you choose in your writing will help increase your writing’s clarity.