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, y’all (you all) is a regionalism used in the South as a plural form of the word you while yous (often used with yous guys) is used in New York City boroughs when talking to more than one person.
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.