Sunday, August 30, 2015

Vocabulary Pointers

from The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker


In general, don't use a big word when a small one fits. "One or two will do no harm, but any accumulation is fatal––words like depart instead of go." Combining large words with small ones at the end can add power to writing, and was often used by Shakespeare:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."
"These violent delights have violent ends..."
"Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore, so do our minutes, hasten to their end."


Be careful not to repeat the same words too often in your writing. Any word can be overused, dulling your work. But, some words, like very, quite, rather, etc., are used too often by other writers. So, even when you use them sparingly, they can still irritate readers.


Some words, like shark, knife, and bomb are concrete - they are things we can see and touch (carefully). Other words are abstract ideas, like truth, beauty, anger, etc. In general, try to use concrete words because they're more specific. "The writer's ultimate skill perhaps lies in making a single object represent its whole abstract class."

Examples:                                                       Better:

Friendliness is the salesperson's best asset.            A smile is the salesperson's best asset.

To understand the world by observing all            To see the world in a grain of sand. . . .
of its geological details. . . .

DENOTATION & CONNOTATION: two sides of meaning

"When we look up synonyms in our dictionary––shake, tremble, quake, quiver, shiver, shudder, wobble––we see that all of them specify, or denote, the same thing: a shaking motion. But each also connotes a different kind of shake . . . These connotations have certain emotional attachments: tremble (fear), quiver (excitement), shiver (coldness), shudder (horror), wobble (imbalance)." Make sure your words both denote and connote what you want.


These are short forms of verbs, like: don't, won't, can't, shouldn't, isn't. Avoid them in formal writing.


A Euphemism is when you change a word with negative connotations to one that's positive, like saying you had your dog "put to sleep", when you really took it to a vet to have it killed. There was probably a very good reason for doing it, and you shouldn't feel guilty. But people often do, so they sugarcoat their words to help justify their actions. Try to avoid euphemisms in essays, except in humorous irony.

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck, or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  ––George Orwell


A cliché is a phrase commonly found (and overused) in writing, art, and everyday speech.

Examples: It's my way or the highway.
                   You ain't seen nothin' yet.
                   It's all in a day's work.

Avoid using clichés in your writing––avoid anything that will make your readers' eyes roll. "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." ––Gérard de Nerval


Jargon is technical speech, specific to a trade such as medicine, engineering, or education. Jargon is usually vague and confusing. Avoid it.

Example: The plot structure of the play provides no objective correlative.
Better: The plot is incoherent. Its structure is lopsided.

Example: The character development of the heroine is excellent.
Better: The heroine matures convincingly.

Example: Three motivation profile studies were developed in the area of production management.
Better: The company studied its production managers, and discovered three motivators.


Pronouns are troubling, but often necessary. Beware these common situations:

One is very formal, sometimes too formal. Try to cut it from all your writing.

Example: One finds one's opinion changing as one grows older.
Better: Our opinions change as we grow older.
Even Better: Opinions change with age.

We and You can sound pompous (pompézny) and presumptuous (príliš sebavedomý). Don't put words in other people's mouths.

Example: You probably hate ice cream because it melts too quickly and drips everywhere.
Better: Many people dislike how messy ice cream can be. [You said the same thing without accusing the reader of hating ice cream.]

You and They can also create confusion. It makes the reader ask, who exactly? See if you can change you and they to we or everyone.

Sometimes it's hard to know when to use nominative pronouns versus objective, especially when combined with like or as. As takes the nominative, and like the objective:

Examples: She dresses like me.
                   She dresses as I do.

Don't be afraid of saying me.                Right                         Wrong                      Also Wrong
                                                between you and me        between you and I      between you and myself

Don't confuse who and whom.

Wrong: Give the ticket to whomever wants it.
Right: Give the ticket to whoever wants it.

Don't confuse whose and who's. Whose is the possessive of who. Who's means "who is."

Wrong: Who's pen is this?            Wrong: Whose your favourite singer?
Right: Whose pen is this?            Right: Who's your favourite singer?


Be careful to note which words fit best with countable nouns and which with uncountable nouns.

Countable Modifiers             Uncountable Modifiers
many                                        much
few                                           less
a number of                              an amount of

No comments:

Post a Comment