Word Choice: Simple is Sophisticated

Word Choice with Shurley English.jpg

Writing is a tool for communication, and language is the system of words and the methods of combining them that we use to express our thoughts and feelings to each other.  As teachers, we want our students to think carefully as they select the words they use to covey meaning, but Word Choice can be a tricky discussion. (Don’t worry! I’m here to help.)


Take a look at the following pairs of sentences. What do you notice?

  1. The boys cheered loudly for their team.

  2. The boys clapped, yelled, and stomped for their team.

  3. An unhappy baby cried very loudly tonight.

  4. An unhappy baby wailed tonight.

  5. The tiny green hummingbirds darted quickly around.

  6. The tiny green hummingbirds darted around.

In each of these pairs, could you tell how changing the words a bit affected the clarity of the sentences? Do the words we choose to convey meaning really matter that much? You be the judge.

Throughout my career, I have worked diligently to hone my writing skills. I have come to a conclusion: word choice makes or breaks meaning—every time! Much of my writing from long ago can only be regarded as redundant. I thought that the bigger my words, the longer my sentences, the more clarity I was achieving. Most of the time that was not true. 

Redundancy in writing does not need to happen…nor should we promote it. In the examples above, the second sentence in each pair is not necessarily better. But notice how a change in the word choices makes a huge impact on the sentence clarity—how clear the meaning is.

Can you spot the redundancies in the first set? The culprit here is the use of a weak verb and an adverb that is too predictable. By simply replacing the general verb cheered with three specific, active verbs (clapped, yelled, and stomped), the reader gets a better mental model of what the author is saying. These specific verbs convey what most of us think of as cheering.

How about the second set of sentences? Can you see how the verb wailed in Sentence 4 says exactly the same thing as in Sentence 3, but it does more clearly? This is an example of reducing the number of words but improving the meaning.

Finally, observe how I omitted the adverb quickly in Sentence 5. I ousted the adverb because we don’t need it. If a hummingbird darted, we already understand that the bird moved fast; consequently, there is no need to use the adverb quickly.

When you work with young writers, you will be doing them a big favor if you help them learn how to spot the sentences with too many words, with redundant words or modifiers, and with non-specific verbs. When you equip students with these skills, you will teach them not only the value of making better word and phrase choices, but also the elevated sophistication of writing simply and clearly.

 Note: For an in-depth discussion on Word Choice, I invite you to visit this previous post.