Imprecise and Incorrect Word Choice

Imprecise and incorrect word choice can be, at best, distracting to your reader. At worst, it can be confusing and impede your reader’s understanding of your writing. The easiest word choice problems to catch are when the word choice is wrong because of spelling, such as using the wrong form of you’re/your, it’s/its, they’re/their/there, or another incorrect homonym.1 Most spell checkers/grammar checkers will catch these types of word choice errors. The more difficult to notice in your own writing is imprecise word choice, which means that the word does not communicate quite what you want it to. This can include words that have connotations you are not aware of, words that are inappropriate for your audience, and words are offensive.

Here are some examples of this writing weakness:

At this point, Romeo stepped out from behind a bush and exposed himself to Juliet. This is an example of a phrase that has connotations either not noticed or not known by the author. To “expose oneself” is a another term for flashing, a euphemism for exposing your genitals in public. Obviously, that isn’t what the reader meant here. This is what happened when the Tea Party in the United States originally called themselves “tea baggers”; they were using an ineffective word choice because they weren’t aware of the sexual association with the phrase “tea bagging.” As a result, the message of the political movement was muffled by jokes about tea bagging. While these types of word choice errors are often amusing, they take away from your writing and make it less effective.

Her kindness to another at the expense of her own reputation was somewhat admiral. This type of mistake is, I believe, the result of spell check. When you use spell check, you should not simply accept all changes without looking them over. This writer likely misspelled admirable, and the spell check, not knowing what word she meant, made admiral the first choice. She clicked “accept” without checking to see whether that was the word she meant. As a teacher, the most common example I saw of this was defiantly used in place of definitely. Definatly and definately are common misspellings of definitely, and some spell checkers correct them to defiantly.

President Bush delivered his speech is a tense-filled and pathetic atmosphere with an anxious audience. There are two issues with the word choice in this sentence: tense-filled and pathetic. In the first, the writer is using the wrong form of tense; it should be tension-filledTense is an adjective, a person can be tense and a situation can be tense, but tense cannot fill anything anymore than pretty or confusing can. The second word choice that’s confusing is pathetic. I’m actually not quite sure what this writer meant, as an atmosphere cannot be pathetic, nor does this appear to be a spelling error. These two word choices make it difficult for the reader to understand what the writer means.

In an academic essay: Sitting on the couch is the Ronald MacDonald guy who is their mascot. The word choice here is simply too informal. “The Ronald MacDonald guy” is how you would talk to your friends, not how you would write in an academic essay. It makes it sound as though the writer is not taking their essay or their audience seriously.

Gay marriage and homosexuals in general are a hot button topic. This sentence contains a word choice that is considered offensive by many: the use of homosexual as a noun. 2

The problems of word choice are many, so there’s no one easy fix. Instead, there are strategies you can use for each of the categories of word choice errors.

For word choice errors that contain unintended connotations and associations, read the essay aloud. This will help you to catch the associations you are familiar with. It’s also a good idea to have a friend or writing partner look over the essay as well, to help catch those you don’t know about.

For word choice errors as the result of homonyms,

  1. Know the difference between you’re/your, they’re/their/there, and it’s/its.
  2. Know the difference between adjective, adverb, and noun forms of words you’re using.
  3. Watch out for idioms, and be sure that you’ve chosen the correct words for them. Because idioms don’t usually rely on the literal definitions of the individual words (and because many people don’t see them written down often), it’s easy to pick words that sound similar but aren’t correct. For example, writers sometimes write “taken for granite” instead of “taken for granted,” “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes,” or “low and behold” instead of “lo and behold.”
  4.  When you see your word processor autocorrect your words, or you use a spell checker, be sure that the word chosen is the one you meant.

When using unfamiliar words, look them up! The dictionary is your friend, but the thesaurus is not. Use words you feel fairly confident using, not words you think sound smart. If you wouldn’t feel okay saying it out loud, don’t write it down.

For word choice errors related to tone, know your genre and audience. Use dialect choices and wording that are appropriate for them. Sometimes this means being formal in your word choice and sometimes it doesn’t. Be aware of your audience and what they expect from you, as well as the effect your wording has on them.

For word choice errors that are offensive, be careful when discussing topics that are controversial, such as minority rights, -isms like racism and sexism, and gender expression. When writing about disenfranchised or marginalized groups of people, find out what the preferred terms are from the group concerned. For example, you don’t generally want to use homosexual or female as nouns. It’s better to call people who enter a country illegally undocumented immigrants as opposed to illegals or illegal immigrants. In anti-racism movements, colored is an offensive term for people who are not white and people of color is preferred. There are reasons for all of these linguistic choices, and vocabulary is important in social justice and identity. It’s your job to find out what’s the best word choice and why; don’t just rely on what you’ve heard or your instinct.

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Written by Courtney Stoker

  1. There are many people (including teachers) who will judge you harshly for misusing you’re/your and the like, and will act as though this means you don’t understand English. But keep in mind that these are simply spelling mistakes, and spelling mistakes are common with any frequently-used homonym.
  2. See also the page on vague, general statements and fluff.