Good writing is context dependent. In other words, it is not always appropriate to use Standard English. If you sent a letter home to your mother or other family member using Standard English, he or she would probably wonder if it were actually you writing the letter since we don’t use Standard English in everyday speech, and informal letters are generally written how we speak.
We all use slang when we speak. Slang is a general term for non-standard uses of language in a particular social group. Closely related is the use of regionalisms which are non-standard uses particular to a region of the country. For example, you’ll (you all) is a regionalism used in the South as a plural form of the word you while yous is used in New York City.
Another consideration in evaluating “good” writing is the context. Specific professions, for example, use jargon which is specialized language in a field. It’s not unusual for there to be a particular system of abbreviating such as in the medical profession. Interestingly, some words we commonly use such as consideration or gross has other meanings in specialized fields. Consideration means money or some other payment in the law profession. The word gross is used to mean large in the medical and other professions.
The point is that we use informal language in different contexts and for different audiences. When we speak to a five-year-old child, we use language differently than with our friends.
Even though it may not be appropriate to use Standard English all the time, we should know how to use it. With the proliferation of venues for informal written language such as email and texting, sometimes it is hard to remember that there is a standard set of rules.
We should be aware that just because we see a particular spelling or usage in an ad or sign, it does not mean it is Standard English: through, not thru. Academic writing generally requires use of Standard English.
Using a Dictionary
A standard dictionary is the best and first place we should look to for spelling and pronunciation in addition to meaning. Dictionaries show when proper spelling requires a hyphen and when it doesn’t: far-fetched; bylaw. They show if a word is spelled as one word or two: day care, but campground. Sometimes, the use of hyphens can vary with the form of the word: witch hunt, but witch-hunter.
When a word has more than one accepted spelling or pronunciation, we should use the first listed when we are writing a college or business document. This assures consistency in spelling. Dictionaries are also helpful to see how plurals are formed, for what is considered a foreign word for use of italics, and for capitalization.
Online spell checks are becoming more popular because they are often faster and can help to correct a word if they are misspelled. This is a very helpful feature, but it is always important to remember that you must decide if the suggestions are correct or not. This also applies to the spell and grammar check in most word processors. There is nothing worse than changing something which was correct in the first place because the spell check or grammar check indicated an error.
How to Use a Thesaurus and How Not to Use a Thesaurus
A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms: words that mean the same. When you want to another word for one you think you have used too much, you can look in a thesaurus for other options. However, there are some considerations.
Appropriate language use involves more than just considering the dictionary definition of a word. Some words are not commonly used, so you will not be effectively communicating if readers aren’t familiar with words.
There are issues of actual meaning. A thesaurus lists related words and not just specific words which mean exactly the same. For example. Thesaurus.com lists calisthenics, aerobatics, and gym as synonyms for trampoline. Hiking, marching, and strolling are listed as synonyms for walking. It is critical that you look up the meaning of a word found in a thesaurus before using it.
Bias and Discriminatory Language
To effectively persuade people of the justification of our position, it is not a good idea to deliberately or inadvertently insult them. Good communication should not contain slurs about race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. This type of language can destroy our credibility in a moment, rendering the point of our communication meaningless to the listener or reader even if the listener or reader were not a member of the offended group.
There is also a logical error in attributing bad characteristics on an individual because he or she is a member of a group. Such stereotyping and discriminatory language presumes that all members of a group have a particular characteristic which simply is not factual. It also is against the basic notion that people should be judged for themselves and not their genetic ancestry or place of birth. These remarks can be insulting even when they are not meant to be.
“Old people just can’t drive!”
An old person could take offense and might think in response, “Young people just can’t drive.”
We all have our biases, and sometimes they slip out in ways that surprise us. Here’s an example about a comment made by a woman making an appointment for the first time in a doctor’s office.
“Does he happen to be in today?”
The receptionist replied, “No, she’s not in today.”
The woman had presumed the doctor was a male.
Clichés are words or expressions that are so over-used, they make the writing seem boring. Expressions such as asleep at the wheel, any port in a storm, and good as gold send a signal to the reader that there is nothing new or of interest in the writing.
Inappropriate repetition can occur within a sentence and within a paper.
Within a sentence, repetition can occur with words that mean the same thing.
Repetitive: The female actress starred in the lead role in the hit movie, Avatar.
The word actress refers to a female actor; it is, therefore, unnecessary to use the word female. Also, to star means to take a lead role, so this is also unnecessary.
Corrected: The actress starred in the hit movie, Avatar.
Within a paper, repetition can be of the same words or the same points expressed in different word.
Repetitive: The biggest concern about the proliferation of garbage in our landfills is the seeping of toxic waste into our water supply through the ground. Toxic waste can seep through the ground and to into our water supply. The water we drink can then be adversely affected by toxic waste from landfills.
Corrected: The biggest concern about the proliferation of garbage in our landfills is the seeping of toxic waste into our water supply through the ground.
Wordiness is the problem where more words than necessary are used to express a thought since such sentences can be difficult to follow.
Good writing is concise. Fewer words are better to make the point clearly.
Wordy: In this article, it says that global warming is a natural occurrence which would happen whether or not humans put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Corrected: This article says that global warming is natural and not a result of human activity.
Concrete and Abstract Words
A concrete word is a word that refers to a specific, tangible item. Concrete words clearly identify and define. Abstract words are general and not specific.
Our society should primarily be concerned with raising children properly. The word society is not concrete since it is not tangible.
Parents should be primarily concerned with raising children properly. The word parents is concrete since it is tangible.
The need for clear reference is one of the problems with using second person you in writing. The reference is too general and not concrete.
Unclear: You should know what your children are doing.
This sentence is poorly constructed. I, as the reader, would be confused if I have no children. This sentence isn’t meant to refer to me. Here is more clear phrasing.
Corrected: Parents with children living at home should know what their children are doing.
Unclear: The air is bad today.
This sentence is very general. What air? What’s bad about it? Here are sentences that more specifically explain:
Corrected: The pollen level in the air is high today.
The air is thick with smoke from the nearby forest fire.
The traffic from the highway down the block causes a foul smell in the air.
Denotation and Connotation
Denotation is the dictionary meaning of a word. Connotation is what meanings are attached to the word.
House is a place where people live. Home is a place where people live. However, the meanings attached to home are very different.
Some words have positive or negative connotations. For example, would you rather be childlike or childish? Childlike has a positive connotation while childish has a negative connotation.
Denotation: Small in proportion to height or length
Positive connotation: Slim, Trim, Svelte
Negative connotation: Skinny, Boney, Scrawny
Literal comparisons use concrete and specific analysis based on the dictionary definitions. Figurative comparisons use references to different experiences to evoke images. Here are three sets of examples, each set using a literal and figurative comparison.
Rose petals look like thin, curved shavings of wood which are dyed red. This is a literal comparison.
Rose petals are as soft as a feather and as sweet as a perfume. This is a figurative comparison.
She was shy.
She was like a shrinking violet.
The road was cracked and full of debris.
The road looked as though a bomb has exploded on it.
Active and Passive Voice
Active voice is when the subject is doing the action or existing as the status. Here are two examples:
Martese plants flowers in the spring. (Martese is doing the action.)
Jade is tall. (Jade is existing in a particular status.)
Generally, we speak and write in active voice which is considered more clear and direct.
Passive voice is when the sentence is phrased so that something is being done to the subject. Here is an example:
The ring was placed on the table. (The action is happening to the subject.)
Passive voice is appropriately used when the purpose of the sentence is what was done to the subject and not the action of the subject.
Point of View/Person
Whether we are writing or speaking, we use language from a point of view – our own personal perspective. As a literary tool, however, point of view is not exactly the same as perspective. A writer may alter point of view and speak from another perspective, such as the reader’s or listener’s point of view, or from a bystander’s or third person’s point of view in addition to our own.
Consequently, there are said to be three persons in writing:
First person – I, w, me, use, my, our
Second person – you, your including omitted (understood) you sentences where the subject you is dropped such as in commands or instructions
Third person – he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, hers, theirs or any noun such as people, society, parents, society, students, teachers
When we speak, we use person informally. We frequently use first person I and second person you and we shift between all three voices. When we write, we have to be consistent and specific. Here is an example.
Pronoun shift: I went to that restaurant because you know it has the best pizza.
This has an illogical shift. It literally is not conveying the intended meaning. I didn’t go to that restaurant because you knew it has the best pizza.
Corrected: I went there because I knew it had the best pizza.
Sometimes for a formal paper or a specific assignment, an instructor may tell you to not use the first (I, me, my, we, us, our) or second person (you, your). Third person is more removed and lends a more academic tone.
First Person: In my opinion, the best way to resolve problems with children is through the parents.
When we want to establish ourselves as an authority instead of simply giving our opinion, it is critical to use third person and not first person.
Third Person Restatement: The best way to resolve problems with children is through the parents.
Using Second Person creates a lack of clarify.
Second Person: You should know what your children are doing.
While we use you in everyday speech, the use is really not a specific reference. It is just meant s a general expression. In writing, we should be specific. Literally, this sentence doesn’t say what it means. The you not intended to include every reader. There are readers who do not have children. There are readers whose children are not living at home.
Third Person Restatement: Parents with children living at home should know what their children are doing.
When you give directions or advice to the reader, you are using omitted you second person. Be sure to proofread carefully. Even though the word you is not expressed, it is understood.
Second Person Implied (Understood) You: Look carefully before crossing the street.
The implied (understood) subject is you.
Third Person Restatement: Pedestrians should look carefully before crossing the street.
Generally, second person (you, your) should not be used in college writing. First person may be appropriate for particular assignments depending upon the instructions. When in doubt, it is safer not to use first person (I, me, my, we, us, our) unless of course the assignment calls for a personal response. Always check with your instructor.
In fiction writing, authors use point of view or voice in different ways to further the story. Some even adopt a first person point of view when it was not even their personal experiences they are writing about.