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Word Choice, Experimentation, and Style

Word Choice, Experimentation, and Style

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses word choice and experimentation, even in essays.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We'll be looking at how style intersects such concepts as word choice and experimentation, including the ways it touches on variety in writing and the different kinds of meaning words can have, connotation and denotation. Perhaps the biggest factor in determining a writer's style is his or her word choice. Whenever writers make the decision whether to use long words or short words, obscure words or common words, poetic words or simple words, these choices embody the style of an essay or the piece of writing and have a powerful effect on the reader's experience.

Word choice is particularly relevant when words synonyms, which, for those who don't already know, are words that have the same or very similar meanings to other words. For example, the words run and jog may share a definition or two. And in some cases they could be used interchangeably. But in others, switching between them would completely change the meaning of the sentence. You wouldn't want to say someone was jogging away from the police, for example.

Or to make a difference of the synonyms. Consider the words party and reception. Both of similar meanings and, again, they could be used interchangeably in some cases, but have completely different associated meanings, or connotations, as we'll discuss later. And the words use and utilize have the same meaning, but people will read them differently and think differently about a text or writer that uses one rather than the other.

Consider the following paragraphs. They say much the same thing, but as I read them, you should notice a pretty significant difference none the less. The first one goes like this. "Many people consider the president's apparent inability to render a timely decision regarding the upcoming deadline for funding privatized medicine allowances a grievous error, or perhaps even an unintentional slight in the direction of the multitude of taxpayers who have been waiting with baited breath to discover whether their current standards of living would be maintained. I, for my part, concur with the latter."

Notice how this paragraph makes use of some pretty big words. It's a bit heavy going, but most readers should still be able to understand the ideas and points being raised. However, consider this version which says much the same thing though in a different way. "Some have said that the fact that Obama hasn't decided if he wants to keep funding single-payer medicine allowance is a mistake. Others think he's insulting the people who depend on it. I, for my part, think the second group is right."

So what do you think? Both paragraphs were making the same argument and introducing their topic in much the same way. But other than that, they didn't have much in common, did they? As you can see, swapping a few words for one of their synonyms, which is, after all, most of what I did to create these two paragraphs, can have a huge impact on the reader's experience with a text. The only questions are, what style do you want to display and what words will you use to show it?

Though composition teachers might seem to frown on it at times, even within the confines of academic writing, writers have room to experiment. The greater part of creativity is allowing your own personal style to show through in the text. And like a jazz musician putting his or her own creative spin on an already existing song, so too can writers, even beginning writers, put their own creative spin on a already existing genres of writing. Style is the one realm where writers should feel particularly free to experiment as it's only by experimenting with different styles and tones, voices and stances, that new writers can discover not only what they have to say but how they're capable of saying it.

That being said, writers should be mindful of the expectations of their audience and the requirements of their assignments, even when experimenting. Experimentation is by its very nature a riskier path to tread than more conventional approaches to writing. But still, experimenting with style is always an option. In part because writers can cut, revise, and adjust their work as they go along through the writing process.

When talking extensively about the same subject, it's easy to use the same words over and over again. This is also true for writing. More so, I'd say, because readers tend to be more aware of repetitive words than listeners. So even though it's common and at times unavoidable for writers to use the same word during drafting, since it's so distracting for readers to see the same word again and again, writers should strive to vary the terms they use.

One way to do this is to make use of a thesaurus to find synonyms and a dictionary to make sure the synonyms share the right meaning, though it's important not to go overboard here. Keep in mind that it's also possible to vary words so much that it becomes distracting for readers, which is just as bad, if not worse, than being repetitive. When choosing synonyms, writers need to make sure to choose words that are similar enough in meaning and feeling to the original word. They need to match in terms of both connotation and denotation, that is.

So what are connotation and denotation? They're the two kinds of meaning that a word can have. Denotation means the literal meaning of a word. The dictionary definition, as we sometimes call it. Connotation, meanwhile, is a suggested meaning of a word based on implication or the cultural or emotional associations we have with the word. It's important for writers to be aware of both the denotative and connotative meanings of the words that they use. Not just to avoid embarrassing mistakes, but because this knowledge allows writers to make dynamic and interesting word choices.

It's a kind of freedom having an active and nuanced vocabulary, and I encourage all writers and would-be writers to strive for it and to pay attention to the uses that other writers make of words. That's the only way to learn.

As an example of the differences between denotation and connotation, consider the word organic. This has many denotative meanings which vary from genre to genre. For example, in food circles organic is a label that means no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used. While in chemistry, it means anything that's carbon based. But the connotations of organic are quite different as, in part, due to advertising. Most people think of positive, healthy or expensive things when they hear or see the word organic.

As contrast, consider the word artificial. The denotative meaning for this is an imitation or simulation, among other entries. But again, in part, because of advertising and other communications, we tend to have a different cultural connotation for this word, this time more negative. Or even simpler words like snake have different denotative and connotative meanings. Though snake simply denotes a kind of animal, we have all kind of connotations for it. Danger, deceit, et cetera.

Shade is another term. It means shelter from sunlight but most of us have a positive connotation with the word shade even though it can also mean a kind of ghost. Now, consider what happens if we make the noun into an adjective. The word shady brings about a completely different set of connotative meaning, doesn't it?

What did we learn today? We learned how style is affected by writer's word choices and looked at ways that experimenting with style can help writers when it's done carefully. Finally, we talked about how to vary our word usage and the differences between the denotative and connotative meanings of words. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

A suggestive meaning of a word, based on implication, cultural association, or emotional association with a word.


The literal meaning of a word, the dictionary definition.


Words that have the same or very similar meanings to other words.