Precision in Language

Contributor: Kristen Gardiner. Lesson ID: 12929

Let's see . . . This learning thing is like . . . It'll help you pick the right stuff to say what you wish to articulate and . . . Well, you see the importance of choosing the right words, so read on!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


A guy walks into a bar and says, “Ouch.”

A word about words …

To choose or not to choose the precise word — often that decision means the difference between funny and not funny.

You may not notice, but the entire premise of the opening joke relies on one little word: “bar.” When you first read this sentence, you may take the meaning of this word to be a place where one may go to imbibe and mingle with others over 21 years of age. It is what the man says that implies that you may be looking at the other meaning of the word “bar,” that being something like a pole or a post. It’s the word play that makes the pun — if you were to use more precise wording, it just wouldn’t work:

A guy walks into a pub and says, "Ouch." No, no humor there.

A guy walks into a pole and says, "Ouch." This statement is also not amusing.

When a more precise word is used, the pun does not have the desired humorous ending. It is only effective if you use the word “bar,” which has more than one meaning.

Ambiguity may be wonderful if you’re writing jokes, but not if you’re writing a collegiate essay or preparing for college entrance exams. Using clear and exact wording shapes not only what your writing says, but also what your readers take. One single word can change the tone or mood of an entire piece of writing. It can also sway a reader’s opinion about your writing.

The difference can create a mental image of either this . . . or this. Two very different scenarios.

When you are writing or even reading a formal piece, vague or imprecise words can change the entire meaning of an idea or statement. For example, if you were writing to express your desire to take on a summer job to help fund your car expenses, the choice between the words “can” and “will” can tell the reader the likelihood of your follow-through before you even get the chance to fill out an application. Read the following two sentences to get a sense of how one word will make a huge difference:

So, you may be thinking, "Why is this important for me to know for the SATs?" It is important for two reasons:

Finding just the right word isn’t always easy, but the payoff is well worth your time and efforts. A precise word greatly improves the clarity of a sentence. Use your revision and editing time as an opportunity to continue to add clarity to your work. Each step in the writing process gives you another opportunity to clarify what you mean and find precise words.

Keep this in mind while reading as well: readers use words to identify who is doing the action and what action is happening. Nouns name characters — verbs name actions. Together, they control the central meaning of any sentence. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing your work or reading a work critically, it is essential to focus your attention on the nouns and verbs that control these principal elements of each sentence.

Spend a moment on character

First, spend some time thinking about character description when writing. Before you roll your eyes and think that you have no intention of ever being on the Best Seller list as the latest YA fiction author, take a moment to focus on practical application and audience.

You are most likely reading this because “Language Precision” is heavily measured on the SAT. However, that does not mean that it has no relevance beyond a test. Think first about why you are taking the time to prepare for the test in the first place: to get into the college of your choosing. Once you earn entrance into college, you will be asked to write papers (yes, even mathematics and computer science majors write papers).

Consider the types of papers you will be required to write. There is the persuasive or argumentative essay, which has no key players because it is typically written in the second or third person. However, that does not mean an augmentative piece cannot be about a person (or character, as we writers like to refer to biped creatures).

For example, I could make the argument that Winston Churchill was, beyond all doubt, the greatest leader of the twentieth century.

  • Now, am I happy with "greatest"?
  • Do I want to use more precise words that describe his leadership and ability to take command of the English language under the most arduous circumstances?
  • What word might I use in its place?

The best place to start is the thesaurus. If you are writing your paper in any of the well-known commercial word processing programs, you have a thesaurus in your top menu bar. If not, you can go online and use Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, but once you select a word, you will want to use a dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster Dictionary to ensure you are using the word properly in the sentence.

So, I'd like a new word for "greatest." When you use the thesaurus, be careful to look at the meanings and parts of speech of the synonyms because, as you know, there are words that have multiple meanings and “greatest” is one of those words. Also use your dictionary if you are unsure about a word's meaning. If I’m not careful with my word selection, I may end up calling someone whom I feel was remarkable or skillful, the "largest" or "most enormous" leader of the past century!

images from a thesaurus

Know exactly what you want to say, and find the right word to express exactly what you mean. In my opinion, he was not only "skillful," but also "profound." There, two words to articulate my impression of an historical figure!

This same technique will also work for research papers and informative pieces where you are required to provide information about a person. Use caution, however, when expressing opinions in these formats. It is best to stick to the facts and present those facts using your own style and creativity.

Narratives and pieces of fiction are a whole new chapter. When we describe a living, breathing person as we perceive him or her, there is more than just physical appearance to take into consideration. Be clear and precise when describing how a person looks. Don’t just write, “She had long brown hair;” show your reader her hair by using precise words. "Her chestnut hair reflected streaks of golden sunlight as it swept across her mid-back." Now, I may not be Longfellow, but I do know this is much more precise than simply saying “She had long brown hair.” A gorilla has long brown hair as well; how can one differentiate when the wording is so vague? If you notice in the second description, you not only get a physical picture, but also a sense of how the writer might feel about the person begin described.

Finally, think about the informational papers you will write and why precision is important in these pieces.

You are writing your bi-weekly progress report for your student teaching assignment (or internship, or business management project, or whatever). The people reading (your peers and professors) may know a little bit about your project, but they obviously have less information than you as they try to follow what you have accomplished, with whom you have worked, and so on. You will need to use precise, real-life, biped creatures as subjects to accurately communicate the work completed. For instance, instead of referring to “the teacher,” you might say “my mentor” or “my cooperating teacher.” "Mentor" and "cooperating teacher" are more specific than "the teacher." Even more specific would be the name of the teacher!

On the other hand, the difference could be irrelevant to your audience in this report. Part of selecting a precise word revolves around the detail your audience needs to know.

  • Is the title or exact position of your supervising teacher (Susan Jones, Master Teacher of Quantum Physics, MEd, M.S. and Faculty Advisor of the Astronomy Club) relevant to the point you are trying to make?
  • Does it change the understanding of your idea if you use a more general term?
  • Would it help to use the name? Will the audience know this person by name?

It may be important to use this individual's title to illustrate the role he or she plays in the scenario. If supporting you — rather than sitting in the faculty lounge shopping on eBay — plays a crucial role in a paragraph or sentence, a more specific title, such as “mentor,” would work better because it will locate for your audience the specific, or precise, relationship between you and this person. She’s more than the teacher who agreed to let you into her classroom — she is guiding you through a learning process.

If this is the only time we hear about this teacher, or if we are unfamiliar with her name, it will likely suffice to say, “my cooperating teacher.” In contrast, if your audience knows people by name on this project, it might make sense to use his or her name so that readers can name the specific actor they will recognize in the role. Similarly, using a more specific title could have the benefit, in context, of showing the importance of the encounter: the principal of the school recognizing your work is probably more significant to the status of the project than your cooperating teacher or mentor doing the same.

Now that we have discussed our nouns, let's talk about what they do.

The action words you choose determine the tone and feeling of your writing because they dictate the images the reader creates in his or her mind. Consider the differences in these sentences:

Notice how changing the action word completely changes the meaning of the sentence and conjures up a completely different image and raises different questions. “Got” is not a specific action, so it is not easy to picture exactly what happened: reading "got," I could easily picture either “won” or “found,” for instance — two very different images.

Continue on to the Got It? section for some writing practice!

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