Improving Word Choice uab university writing center features of Effective Word Choice

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Improving Word Choice

  • UAB

Features of Effective Word Choice

  • Clarity – the meaning of the word is clear, not ambiguous
  • Concise – each word has purpose and power; no unnecessary words
  • Coherent – each word is clearly connected within its phrase, sentence, and paragraph
  • Emphasis – each word is situated within the sentence in a way that clearly indicates its degree of emphasis in the sentence


  • Watch the use of pronouns – always locate its antecedent and make sure it is clear and agrees:
    • Everyone (singular) wants their (plural) study to be featured in their (whose?) latest journal.
    • Each aspiring researcher wants his or her study to be featured in the latest scientific journal.
  • Context shapes meaning, but taken out of context, a word may lose its clarity.
    • Ex. Character: a person in a fictional setting, such as a novel, a play, or movie; a symbol on a keypad; positive connotation: one’s inner level of integrity, as in “moral character”; negative connotation: a jokster, as in “he’s a real character.”


  • “Less is more” strategy: one strong word choice is preferable to several weak words
  • Reduce clauses to phrases.
  • Reduce prepositional phrases to adjectives:
    • Ecosystem with many endangered species  Endangered ecosystem
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition
  • Be specific, rather than vague
  • Try reversing the order of the sentence


  • Generally, coherence refers to how the word fits within its paragraph and/or essay context
  • Repeat key terms
  • Use transitional/cohesive devices that show connections/relationships among the words:
    • Therefore, Although, In addition to, However, First, Second, Finally, Because, Moreover, In summary…
  • Keep consistent connotative value among word choice
  • Keep verb tense consistent


  • The location of a word in a sentence indicates its importance.
  • The strongest position (in English syntax) is the beginning of a sentence or independent clause.
    • Subjects often go at the beginning of a sentence.
    • For emphasis, a connecting word may precede the subject.
  • The second strongest position (in English syntax) is the end of a sentence or independent clause.
    • Ex. What we really want in sentences is ________.

Strategies to Improve Word Choice

  • Reduce the use of linking or passive verbs:
    • Circle every use of am, is, are, was, were, being, been
    • Consider replacing the weak verb with an action verb: ex. He is exciting vs. He excites.
    • If passive, consider placing the subject before the verb: ex. She was hit by the ball vs. The ball hit her.

Strategies to Improve Word Choice

  • Read a variety of nonfiction genres
  • Learn the discourse of your writing community (read discipline-specific articles, abstracts, reports)
  • Replace clichés
  • Replace unnecessary words or phrases.
  • Replace “It is” or “There are” whenever possible.
    • Ex. It is imperative that writers use engaging, effective language for academic writing.
    • Better Ex. Writing for academic audiences requires the use of engaging, effective language.

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