Word Choice in English Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Word choice refers to a writer's selection of words as determined by a number of factors, including meaning (both denotative and connotative), specificity, level of diction, tone, and audience. Another term for word choice is diction.

Word choice is an essential ingredient of style. In studying a writer's style, say Hart and Daughton, "the critic's best tool is developing a sensitivity to word choice" (Modern Rhetorical Criticism, 2005).

Examples and Observations:

  • Captain Janeway: I never realized you thought of me as reckless, Tuvok.
    Tuvok: A poor choice of words. It was clearly an understatement.
    (Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ in "Scientific Method." Star Trek: Voyager, 1997)
  • "Good writing is all about good word choice and proper ordering of those words. . . . [T]he first rule for word choice is accuracy. The word has to be right. Not close to right. Not nearly right. Absolutely right. Next, the word has to be appropriate for the context. . . . Whatever meaning a word conjures in the minds of the listeners is the way you should use it. . . . Use words the way they're commonly used."
    (Stephen Quinn and Vincent F. Filak, Convergent Journalism: An Introduction. Focal Press, 2005)
  • "Word choice often determines whether or not you get your message across. Making poor word choices and not writing appropriately for the audience can distract the reader so much that the message you intended to convey is missed."
    (Joy Wingersky, Jan Boerner, and Diana Holguin-Balogh, Writing Paragraphs and Essays: Integrating Reading, Writing, and Grammar Skills, 6th ed. Wadsworth Cengage, 2009)


    "Good writing starts with a profound respect for words—their denotations, their connotations, their force, their rhythm. Once you learn to respect them, you'll develop a passion for using them thriftily. Why use three or four words if one says the same thing? Why say 'in the event that' when you can say 'if'? Or 'in order to' when you can say 'to'? Or, 'for the reason that' when you can say 'since'? Why write 'They speak with great bitterness' when you can write 'They speak bitterly'?

    "A skilled writer writes as if she were paid a dime for each word she deletes. Her prose is concise."

    (John R. Trimble, Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 2000)

    Six Principles of Word Choice

    1. Choose understandable words.
    2. Use specific, precise words.
    3. Choose strong words.
    4. Emphasize positive words.
    5. Avoid overused words.
    6. Avoid obsolete words.

    (Adapted from Business Communication, 8th ed., by A.C. Krizan, Patricia Merrier, Joyce P. Logan, and Karen Williams. South-Western Cengage, 2011)

    Tip for Teachers

    "Simple questions can . . . be used to trigger students' thinking about word choice. Rather than telling students that a particular phrasing is awkward or does not make sense, ask the student 'Why did you choose this word?' or 'What did you mean here?' Listen carefully to the student's explanation and point out when the student uses clearer language. If a teacher understands that ambiguous word choices or misused words serve as placeholders as the student struggles to understand . . . what he or she is trying to say, then helping the student think through the idea through straightforward questions is more helpful than simply pointing out errors." (Gloria E. Jacobs, ​Writing Instruction for Generation 2.0. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011)

    Word Choice and Audience

    "Choosing words that are too difficult, too technical, or too easy for your receiver can be a communication barrier. If words are too difficult or too technical, the receiver may not understand them; if words are too simple, the reader could become bored or be insulted. In either case, ​the message falls short of meeting its goals. . . 

    "Word choice is also a consideration when communicating with receivers for whom English is not the primary language. These receivers may not be familiar with colloquial English—the casual or informal way in which the language may be used." (A.C. Krizan, Patricia Merrier, Joyce P. Logan, and Karen Williams, Business Communication, 8th ed. South-Western Cengage, 2011)

    Analyzing Prose

    "The choice of words is probably the aspect of prose style that is easiest to discuss. When we are studying a writer's choice of words, the questions that are of interest are: does he use, in general, everyday words or unusual words? does the Latin or the Saxon element predominate in his vocabulary? does he seem to use words consciously for their sound? does he seem to prefer the ​abstract, or the concrete word? has he any favourite words, his liking for which may be significant? is the general evidence pointing to slovenliness or fastidiousness in the choice of words? It may be an interesting proof of the importance of the choice of words in shaping an author's style, that a detailed examination of vocabulary, with regard especially to the frequency of certain words or kinds of word, has been used in the attempt to identify anonymous books, attributing them to authors whose other works are known."
    (Marjorie Boulton, The Anatomy of Prose. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954)

    The Lighter Side of Word Choice

    Michael Scott: [reading from the suggestion box] "You need to do something about your B.O."
    Dwight Schrute: [repeating to staff] "You need to do something about your B.O."
    Michael Scott: Okay. Now, I don't know who this suggestion is meant for, but it's more of a personal suggestion. And not an office suggestion. Far be it from me to use this as a platform to embarrass anybody.​
    Toby: Aren't the suggestions meant for you?
    Michael Scott: Well, Toby, if by me, you are inferring that I have B.O., then I would say that that is a very poor choice of words.
    Creed: Michael, he wasn't inferring, he was implying. You were inferring.
    (Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, Paul Lieberstein, and Creed Bratton in "Performance Review." The Office, 2005)