Introduction to Academic Writing

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Grammar: Diction

Choosing Precise Wording

Equipment and memories can be photographic, but to look good in pictures is to be photogenic. To catch an error of this nature, you clearly 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.

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. 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 out of control. 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. For more on using a dictionary or thesaurus to enhance and add precision to your word choices.

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 things.

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’m very relaxed today.

Table 17.2 A Few Common Clichés

as fresh as a daisy as slow as molasses as white as snow
beat around the bush being led down the primrose path big as life
bottomless pit busy as a bee can’t see the forest for the trees
chip off the old block dead of winter dirt cheap
don’t upset the apple cart down to earth flat as a pancake
for everything there is a season from feast to famine go with the flow
gone to pot green with envy growing like a weed
heaven on earth here’s mud in your eye in a nutshell
in the doghouse just a drop in the bucket knock on wood
light as a feather like a duck out of water made in the shade
muddy the water naked as a jaybird nutty as a fruitcake
old as dirt our neck of the woods plain as the nose on your face
raking in the dough sick as a dog stick in the mud
stubborn as a mule sweet as apple pie thorn in my side
two peas in a pod under the weather walks on water
water under the bridge when pigs fly

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 spellchecker identifies a misspelled word, don’t automatically accept the suggested replacement word. Make an informed decision about each word you use.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Words have both denotations and connotations, and you need to focus on both of these meanings when you choose your words.
  • Specific words, such as “fork” or “spoon” instead of “silverware,” and concrete words, such as a “piercing siren” instead of a “loud sound,” create more interesting writing.
  • Figurative language, including alliteration, analogies, hyperbole, idioms metaphors, onomatopoeia, personification, and similes, helps make text more interesting and meaningful.
  • Both clichés and improperly used words detract from your writing. Reword clichés using straightforward language. Eliminate improperly used words by researching words about which you are not sure.

Controlling Wordiness and Writing Concisely

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Recognize and eliminate repetitive ideas.
  2. Recognize and remove unneeded repeated words.
  3. Recognize unneeded words and revise sentences to be more concise.

It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to what you are trying to say. You can manage cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and rewording to eliminate unneeded words.

Eliminating Repetitive Ideas

Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea in two ways within a single sentence is redundant and not necessary. Read each example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove repetitive phrasing that adds wordiness. Then study the suggested revision below each example.

Examples

Original: Use a very heavy skillet made of cast iron to bake an extra juicy meatloaf.

Revision: Use a cast iron skillet to bake a very juicy meatloaf.

Original: Joe thought to himself, “I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.”

Revision: Joe thought, “I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.”

Removing Repeated Words

As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word. But often you can actually remove repeated words. Read this example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove a repeated word that adds wordiness. Then check out the revision below the sentence.

Example

Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.

Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.

Rewording to Eliminate Unneeded Words

If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed to reduce wordiness. Read each example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove phrasing that adds wordiness. Then check out the suggested revisions to each sentence.

Examples

Original: Andy has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Revision: Andy makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.

Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • State ideas only once within a single sentence, as opposed to repeating a key idea in an attempt to clarify.
  • Avoid unnecessarily repeating words within a sentence.
  • Write concisely by eliminating unneeded words.

This lesson is adapted from Writers’ Handbook. If you’d like another lesson on word choice, please see this chapter from Writing for Success.

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