One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Top tips for word choice
Selecting the right words is an essential part of communicating, whether you’re writing a wedding speech or a technical report. You need to choose words that are appropriate for your subject matter, that pitch your message at the right level for your audience, and words that most clearly convey what you are trying to say.
1 Choose everyday words
It is true that English has a vast and varied vocabulary. However, we mostly communicate using only a fraction of those words. A mere 3,000 are enough to make up 75 percent of all communication. They are all standard, everyday words such as tall, eat, forget, and good. Those are the words that people are most used to. So, if you use them rather than more flowery words, your writing will be easier for people to read and process.
2 Avoid clichés and buzzwords
Clichés are phrases and words which are used so often and so vaguely that they lose their original impact. For example, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘mass exodus’, ‘in any way, shape, or form’.
Buzzwords are words or phrases, often items of jargon, that are fashionable in certain contexts, and as a result tend to be overused and sound meaningless. For example, what does ‘a holistic approach’ really mean?
Clichés and buzzwords can irritate readers and either distract them from your message or make them question its validity.
Read more about avoiding clichés.
3 Choose appropriate formal, neutral, and informal words
English is very rich in synonyms. But very often synonyms do not mean exactly the same thing. They are used in distinct styles of writing; some are more formal; some are slangy.
For example, dozens of words express the idea ‘to steal’, but they are all different. Just to examine three of them: purloin is definitely formal, while steal is ‘neutral’, that is to say it is neither formal nor informal. But nick is definitely informal: you would be surprised to find it in a newspaper report of a crime!
In straightforward informative writing, it is helpful to use only neutral words.
4 There are many Englishes
English is a world language with several national varieties, such as Canadian English and Australian English. The two varieties which are most often contrasted are American and British. Apart from the well-known differences in spelling between them, for instance color / colour, center / centre, there are also differences in the use of words, some of which are not obvious.
To make sure that a particular meaning applies outside your own variety of English, it is advisable to check in a dictionary. For instance, in banking a British current account is a checking account in American English. Also, make sure your spellchecker is set to your variety of English.
5 Use inclusive vocabulary
It is important to respect groups in society such as people with disabilities, older people, ethnic minorities, and so forth. One way of doing this is to choose appropriate, non-stereotyping words. In particular, the words you use should be gender-inclusive and not suggest a masculine bias. There are several ways of doing this. For example, when referring to professions it is nowadays standard to avoid words that refer only to one sex, such as actress (use actor) or policeman (use police officer).
6 Enrich your vocabulary
By widening your vocabulary you will have more words to choose from, which means you are more likely to know a word that most precisely conveys your message. Reading is an excellent way to learn new words (as is signing up for the Oxford Dictionaries ‘Word of the Day’ email). However, before you use them, be sure to check the meanings of any words that are new to you in a dictionary!
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