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Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Fri Mar 20, 2015 10:06 pm
by glorybee
This week’s lesson is an extension of one of the pieces of writing advice that I listed last week: Be sparing with the thesaurus. This advice sparked a bit of good-natured discussion, and I thought I’d expand it in another direction.

When I’m editing, I often come across a sentence that’s perfectly correct grammatically, but because the writer has chosen a word without regard to its connotation, the sentence doesn’t really work.

The connotation of a word is the additional meaning that is given to it beyond its simple dictionary definition. The additional meaning could be a cultural construct, or it could be additional emotional meaning that’s attached to the word (either positive or negative).

Here are a few examples to show you what I mean:

Ben was silent for a moment when he opened the box, and then he looked at me, smiling.
Ben was silent for a moment when he opened the box, and then he looked at me, grinning.
Ben was silent for a moment when he opened the box, and then he looked at me, smirking.
Ben was silent for a moment when he opened the box, and then he looked at me, sneering.
Ben was silent for a moment when he opened the box, and then he looked at me, beaming.

Each of those final words—smiling, grinning, smirking, sneering, and beaming—indicates a similar facial expression, but the emotional content for each of the words is considerably different. If Ben is smiling, grinning, or beaming, he’s probably happy (to varying degrees) about what’s in the box. If Ben is smirking or sneering, something much less pleasant is going on with that box.

That’s just one example from myriad synonyms (or near-synonyms) in our wonderfully rich English language. If you’re writing and you find yourself using a word that you’re overly fond of, you may decide to consult the thesaurus—just be sure you know the connotation of the word you choose. If you choose a word with a connotation that you’re not aware of, your sentence could have a totally different meaning from the one you intended.

I’ve got a few pairs of sentences below. In each pair, one sentence contains a word with a positive connotation, and one contains a word with a negative connotation. See if you can pick out which is which.

1. Jan thought the new teacher seemed very youthful.
2. Jan thought the new teacher seemed very immature.

3. Henry is frugal with his money.
4. Henry is miserly with his money.

5. Sally drives a cheap car.
6. Sally drives an affordable car.

7. The protestors marched down the street.
8. The demonstrators marched down the street.

Even though each pair of different words used above might be found in the same thesaurus entry, they don’t mean exactly the same thing, and in each pair, one of them (youthful, frugal, affordable, demonstrators) has a clearly more positive connotation than the other (immature, miserly, cheap, protestors).

If you use your thesaurus, please be sure you’re aware of any positive or negative connotation of the word that you choose.


Another issue that occurs every day as I’m editing is that of people simply choosing an incorrect word. The word they choose may be similar to another either in spelling or in pronunciation or both, or the writer may simply think a word means something different than it really means. For example, as I look back through current editing jobs (none of these are people on FaithWriters, so I won’t be publically calling out anyone who’s likely to see this lesson), I find errors like these:

He clamored up the stairs. (The word she meant was clambered.)

“My furor!” the soldier said, when Hitler entered the room. (The word should be Führer.)

There was a cacophony outside; the neighbor was yelling at his dog. (A cacophony isn’t just any loud noise; it’s a mixture of many terrible-sounding noises or voices.)

She was hoping that the government would give her a little aide. (While a little aide would be nice, the word the writer meant was aid.)

We walked through the bizarre. (It wasn’t that strange; it was a bazaar.)

There’s not really a handy tip for avoiding mistakes like this—after all, no one can master every spelling and every meaning of every English word; there are over a million of them. I have two suggestions, though:

1. If you’re at all in doubt about whether you’ve used a correct word, look it up or ask someone. Way too often, I hear this excuse—Oh, I was in a rush, I knew it wasn’t that great, but I just wanted to get something on paper. Is that attitude consistent with Colossians 3:23 (ISV)? “Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people.”
2. Get an editor. Get an editor. Get. An. Editor. If you’re looking to publish, this is essential. If you’re just writing for the challenge, get a buddy to proofread for you, to catch this sort of error.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on "Eggcorn" for some fascinating and related material.


Finally, and still on the topic of word choice, look at this quote from Mark Twain: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I want my writing to have far more lightning (not lightening, by the way) than lightning bugs, don’t you? One way to do that is to improve your vocabulary.

1. Read, read, read, read. Note interesting words as you read, and work them into your vocabulary.
2. Sign up for It’s free, and it’s a fun way to do a few quick vocabulary exercises every day.
3. Go to and type ‘vocabulary’ into the search box. You’ll find thousands of results, and surely one of them will be the sort of thing that works for you: flash cards, a workbook, even books of vocabulary cartoons.
4. Go to your library and look at past issues of Reader’s Digest. They have a vocabulary quiz in every issue.
5. You can get vocabulary apps for your smart phone for just a few dollars.
6. My favorite vocabulary exercise is You can go to this website and take a quick multiple choice vocabulary quiz (or a quiz in several other subjects). For every answer you get correct, the website will donate ten grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger. I’ve checked it out—it’s totally legitimate. What a wonderful way to increase your vocabulary and to help eradicate world hunger at the same time!

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2015 8:48 am
by Laurie
At one time, I signed up for the "word of the day" e-mails at I haven't heard of the vocabulary sites you mentioned. Very cool. I checked out both sites, and I hope others will, too.

I struggle with health-related brain fog which makes word finding difficult for me sometimes, so I'm grateful for the thesaurus. I often look up the definition of a word, though, before using it to make sure it really fits. Even if I'm familiar with the word, it might not mean exactly what I think it does. I doubt myself a lot, so that lack of confidence is a good thing in that it drives me to regularly check definitions. ;) With the type of non-fiction writing I do, it would be easy to overuse words, so I like using the thesaurus for that reason, too.

True story. One time I looked up the word message in the thesaurus and one of the words that came up was poop. While it's a legitimate word for communication (according to the thesaurus), and I later heard the word used in an episode of MASH, it didn't fit in the poem I was writing at the time. That's clearly an example of a time when you don't put in just any old word because you see it in the thesaurus. ;) However, last year that experience came in handy when I wrote a challenge entry (for the humor genre) about the experience, and I got an EC for it. :)

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2015 9:03 am
by glorybee
Laurie, I remember reading that entry, and it was wonderful. Will you give us a link to it, please?

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2015 11:24 am
by Laurie

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2015 4:29 pm
by Milly Born
I couldn't write without a thesaurus...being a non-native speaker. My vocabulary has increased considerably since I learned to use salsa words :D, but although I always search the internet whether a word can be used in a particular context, I must admit that I sometimes pour in the wrong salsa. So grateful for a wonderful, native buddy!

And uh...I just signed up for
Thanks Jan!

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2015 6:51 pm
by glorybee
Milly, I'm amazed that English is your 2nd language--you write far better than many people for whom English is their first language. You do a wonderful job.

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2015 3:38 am
by TracePezzali
Hi Jan

I checked out those sites you mentioned. Really good! The one will be a regular challenge for me now :thankssign

Great lesson. I know that the wrong word choice can be very jarring. I've also found that even when a word may make sense, when it is one of the 'minor' definitions, the cultural major use of the word takes over so the intended image takes the cultural slant, that DOESN'T work for the sentence. I can't think of an example, which is frustrating, sorry! I only know I've come across it. :oops:

Word choice can definitely give that wow factor when just the right combinations of words are used, then it's like poetry :P Evocative, slips off the tongue beautifully, resonates with truth, transforms good writing for great.

Isn't it why every good writer painstakingly labours over every word?! It makes all the difference. I think that's why getting work edited is essential, to make sure those word choices are on the nail.

Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2015 7:24 am
by yvonblake
Great article, Jan.

The more I write, and encourage others with their writing, I find this to be my theme. Using good vocabulary is the key to better writing.

Thanks for the links.


Re: Be a Better Writer--WORD CHOICE

Posted: Thu Mar 26, 2015 10:53 pm
by TracePezzali
Hi Jan

I'm addicted to that vocabulary site. I've also been able to create a list of all the words i want to really understand and remember - like pronouns, infinitives, inflection, predicate, parenthetical, preposition, clause... The challenge section then asks me tricky questions at random over and over until I nail the answer every time to those tricky concepts.

I highly recommend this site to anyone else who gets confused about certain terms, plus anyone who wants some great new words perfect to spice up prose and poetry. Check out some of the lists already available, or just allow the random words they come up with (and boy are they big words!) The only concern with some of these words is that most people wouldn't know what they meant, which touches on that problem of just confusing and exasperating the reader. A fine balance.

Anyway, heads up to that advice. BRILLIANT!