Category Archives: short words

Finding the right word

When you are reading a rough draft, and you come to a word which seems not quite right to you, or you know there must be a better word but you don’t know what it is, what should you do?

Draw a box around any word which offers an opportunity for improvement and keep reading, says John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  Later, go back, and one by one, think about each of those words.  He suggests you use a good dictionary, the kind which will not only offer synonyms but which will explain shades of meaning among those synonyms.

McPhee recommends not heading directly to a thesaurus because generally thesauruses list synonyms but do not identify shades of meaning, and it is that nuance that you are probably looking for.  However, he says that if you like using a thesaurus, do that, but then look up your chosen word or phrase in a dictionary too.  He calls thesauruses “rest stops” on the way to the dictionary.

McPhee also warns against choosing a multisyllabic word when a simple word will do.

McPhee is author of close to three dozen nonfiction books and is a former writer for Time and The New Yorker.  He offers advice in Draft No. 4 based on his experience writing for more than 50 years, including how to interview in a way which makes people open up, and how to structure nonfiction so that the structure helps the writer but is invisible to the reader.

Is “said” a bad word?

A middle grades teacher in California is insisting her students no longer use “said,” and instead use words like “uttered,” “expressed,” “recited,” and “spewed,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

girl writing and thinkingThat teacher, Leilen Shelton, has also written a book, Banishing Boring Words, purchased, presumably, by people who don’t write for a living.

Shelton’s idea, that overused, general words should be replaced by specific, less used words, is a good one some of the time. But she takes it too far.

“Said,” for example is a word as inconspicuous as “a” or “the” which makes “said” the perfect word to use when someone speaks. Almost any other word focuses on how the person speaks, not on what the person says. And what is usually more important—the message or the way the message is delivered?

Shelton’s goal, to force kids to search for descriptive, specific vocabulary, is good. But sometimes the perfect word is a plain old English word.

For example, if a student is writing dialog, the dialog should sound like real people talking. Real people use words like “make,” “take,” “get,” and “go,” not “construct,” “procure,” “possess” and “perambulate.”

The context in which a word is used must be considered by a writer. So must be the audience. Simpler vocabulary words are easier to understand and attract a wider audience.

With my own students, I insist they locate the verbs in their writing and consider if they should be changed. But the replacement words I suggest are words that children know and have heard their parents or friends use. If a student writes, “We got there,” I ask him to consider “we arrived,” but not “we achieved our destination.”

With vocabulary selection, the biggest problem I see  is usage, especially among ESL students. A student clicks online for a synonym and chooses any word, the longer the better. But not all synonyms are perfect fits, and sometimes the word a student chooses sounds ridiculous.  I recommend students use a dictionary which explains usage and subtle differences in meaning, like the American Heritage Dictionary.

The times must also be considered. Words that Jefferson and Lincoln considered everyday words or at least well know words are not well known today. Students may not be aware that a word is old-fashioned or archaic and use it just because it is on a list.

Ms. Shelton’s goal is good, but her approach lacks common sense.

Should you write with a long word when a good short word is available?

Research shows you should choose the short word.

Nine years ago, a teacher at Stanford University had 71 students read several writing samples and then rank them. Some of the samples were “doctored” to replace simple nouns, verbs and adjectives with more complex words. The result: students rated the authors of the complex vocabulary samples as stupid.

happy pencilConcludes the author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “Write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

Stan Berry, coauthor of five books on writing, agrees. He says readers will stop reading when they are confused. To keep your writing clear, he advises using short, simple words.

Robert Frost, maybe the most renowned US poet, advised to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin for both simplicity and clarity. If you read his poems, you’ll rarely find long words or words of Latin origin. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, Frost uses only one three-syllable word, “promises.” The rest are mostly one-syllable words, and all are every-day words a child could understand.

So how do you select a good word? Ask yourself:

  • Is the word’s meaning clear and specific? If so, use it. If not, keep searching.
  • Does that word fit with the other words you are using?  Does it sound like it belongs, like it is the most natural way to say what you want to say?   If it sounds wrong (too formal, too intellectual, or too childish), don’t use it. Choose another.
  • Does that word stand out? Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes a highfalutin word can sound awkward amid simpler words. Keep searching.
  • Lastly, if you’re not sure about a word, and you keep going back to it, replace it.