Writing: Word Choice

Because descriptive writing is characterized by detailed and interesting illustrations, word choice is a very important writing skill. For this writing practice, we will focus on incorporating new and more specific words to emphasize your meaning.

A challenge with introducing new vocabulary into your writing is appropriately including a new word into a sentence. There are three important parts of word knowledge to consider before including the word: part of speech, connotations vs definitions, and collocations.


Think of how in the fictional books you read in English the word said might be replaced with yelled, cried, declared, insisted, whimpered, or stated. Although at the core these words are all used as verbs for speaking, they carry extra meaning that gives more information to the reader than a simple said.

Be aware that some vocabulary may also have an expression (phrase) that could be used instead of a single word. For example, someone may say tired or exhausted, but the expression I'm beat or I'm worn out or I'm spent also mean the same thing. 

One step that may be helpful is making a list of adjectives and adverbs that more accurately describe the person and their impact on others. A thesaurus is a great place to look for synonyms:

Part of Speech

Most of the words you encounter when looking for synonyms or translating words from your first language will be in the same part of speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb. However, it is possible that you will find a word that changes to a different word form. Now that you've practiced looking at descriptive words and synonyms in isolation, you need to start thinking about how the words are actually used in setences. 

As mentioned in the previous exercise, it is important to check that the part of speech of your synonym is the same. This is the first step to knowing how to include it in a new sentence.

Sometimes, a synonym that uses a different part of speech is the best word for the job. Other times, you may find that the sentence you want to write would be most clear if you change the form of the word on your list.Connotation

The word synonym can be deceptive. As mentioned with the word said, a synonym can add meaning. Sometimes this additional meaning, or connotation, is clear in the definition.

Connotations and Culture

An important note is that connotation is largely determined by culture. A direct translation of a word can often lose an intended connotation or gain one accidentally. An example of this can be seen within the general culture of the United States with words like fat, chubby, skinny, or slim. While the dictionary definition of these words may simply describe the physical shape of a person, there is often a cultural connotation to such descriptions that could be seen as offensive. 

When the dictionary does not provide enough information to know the connotation of a new word, the additional meaning can often be found by viewing example sentences. Look at the example sentences below for said and state. Can you recognize a difference in meaning now?

After looking at a few additional example sentences, you may come to the conclusion that state has an additional level of formality, usually used to talk about speaking in an official way.

The Grammar of Vocabulary

In addition to knowing the part of speech and full meaning of a word, you will need to be aware of any grammar patterns that are connected to that word. The part of speech is one step in this direction, but it does not give you the full information about how the word is commonly included in actual written English. 

collocation is a word that frequently occurs together with a target vocabulary word. Likely as you have memorized verbs, you will have noticed that there is a particular preposition that goes with it.

There are also times that a collocation (particularly a preposition or adverb) can create a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb creates a completely new meaning when the words are found together.

Because a collocation can either be required to complete the grammatical unit or can signal a change in meaning, it is important to look for clues about a new vocabulary word before trying to include it in a sentence. 

Word Choice Review

Throughout this chapter of the textbook, you have looked at how to select vocabulary that provides more specific detail than the low-hanging fruit* of the most common words of English. As you write your short descriptive essay, pay special attention to the words you choose. Is the meaning clear and direct? Is the word form used appropriately for the grammar of your sentence? Have you checked to ensure any new vocabulary words match the intended meaning?

*Low-hanging fruit: obvious or easy choice or action

Descriptive Writing Tip

As a final note, it is important to remember that at the college level, your writing will have a main purpose other than to describe. The description adds to the overall impact of your writing, but there is such thing as too much description. Be careful not to overwhelm your reader with so much description that your actual purpose is lost.

Since the purpose of this essay is to isolate the language skills needed for descriptive writing, you do not need to worry too much about this here. However, look carefully at the feedback you receive from the teacher. Are there supporting ideas that are overdescribed? Are there additional places where descriptions would enhance the writing?


Exercise 1: Vocabulary List

Make a list of vocabulary that would be useful in describing the person you are writing about. Along with the list of words you already know, try making a new vocabulary list of synonyms that you can try to include in your writing. 


pretty: attractive, beautiful, charming, cute, elegant, good-looking, lovely

Exercise 2: Part of speech

1. Practice with the following words. First find a more descriptive synonym and double check the part of speech. 

Original (basic) word & part of speech Example synonym & part of speech Your synonym & part of speech
pretty (adjective) charming (adjective)  
smart (adjective) quick (adjective)  
share (verb) bestow (verb)  
make (verb) conceive (verb)  
easily (adverb) effortlessly (adverb)  
happily (adverb) cheerfully (adverb)  

2. Next, write a sentence for each of the words above. Some sentences may be exactly the same with just one word replaced, while others may need additional changes.

Example words Example sentences
pretty  The decor at the restaurant was very pretty.
charming The decor at the restaurant was very charming.
smart Albert Einstein was very smart.
quick Albert Einstein was very quick, his genius was well-known. (more context needed to clarify that the meaning here is intelligent, not physically fast moving)

Exercise 3: Changing part of speech

In this exercise, you will practice changing your word to a different part of speech so it can be used in a different way in your sentence.

1. Change the part of speech of the synonyms you chose.

New (basic) word & part of speech Example new synonym & part of speech Your new synonym & part of speech
prettily (adverb) charm (noun)  
smartly (adverb) quickly (adverb)  
shared (adjective) bestowed (adjective)  
made (adjective) conceivibly (adverb)  
easy (adjective) effortless (adjective)  
happy (adjective) cheerful (adjective)  

2. Write a sentence for each of the synonyms using them in this new word form.

Example words Example sentences
prettily She smiled very prettily for the cameras.
charm The charm of the city enchanted the tourists.
smartly Our teacher smartly decided not to hold an exam over the holiday weekend.
quickly *This adverb is used only for speed. While speed of thought can sometimes indicate intelligence, it is not a true synonym after changing the part of speech.

Exercise 4: Recognizing connotation

1. Consider the connotations of the underlined words below. How does the meaning shift? Does the dictionary definition clearly show you the difference in use?

    • The shoes were made of a cheap material and were unusable after one use.
    • The shoes were affordable and so buying them was within my budget.
    • The shoes were so inexpensive! They were a steal* at that price! 

2. Now check the connotations and definition differences between the provided synonyms and the one you selected from the previous exercise. How does the meaning shift? Does the dictionary definition clearly show you the difference in use?

    • pretty, charming, and ____
    • share, bestow, and ____
    • easy, effortless, and ____

*This expression is used for when something is so inexpensive that it feels like you didn't have to pay for them

Exercise 5: Connotation Sentences

Read the words below. They have similar dictionary definitions but different connotations. Write a sentence for each word in the pair that demonstrates your understanding of the differences in meaning.

    • Example: My cat is very curious and always looks out the window. My neighbor is so nosy and is always sharing gossip with anyone who will listen.
  1. curious, nosy
  2. guest, visitor
  3. picky, selective
  4. persistent, stubborn
  5. childish, childlike

Exercise 6: Collocations

  1. Practice finding collocations for the following words:
    1. catch + noun
    2. give + preposition
    3. ask + preposition
    4. keep + noun
    5. get + adjective 
  2. Take a look at these verbs and the phrasal verb form. How does the meaning change?
    1. holdhold on and hold up
    2. fight : fight over and fight for
    3. pay : pay off and pay up
    4. hang : hang out and hang up
    5. get : get back at and get back to

Exercise 7: Collocation sentences

  1. Write a sentence for each of the 5 collocates from question 1 in Exercise 5.
  2. Write a sentence for 5 of the phrasal verbs from question 2 in Exercise 5.

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