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!

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A guy walks into a bar and says, "Ouch."

  • Why is that funny?

A word about words …

Often, the decision to choose a more precise word or not means the difference between funny and not funny.

The entire premise of the opening joke relies on one little word: bar.

A bar can be where people hang out with friends over 21 and drink alcohol. It can also be a pole or post.

It's the wordplay 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, there is 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 multiple meanings.

Ambiguity may be fantastic if you're writing jokes, but not if you're writing a collegiate essay or preparing for college entrance exams.

Use precise wording to shape what your writing says and what your readers take. One word can change the tone or mood of an entire piece of writing. It can also sway a reader's opinion about your writing.

A man walking into a pole or a pub can create a mental image of either this . . . or this — two very different scenarios.

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When 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 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 understand how one word will make a huge difference.

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  • Why is this important for you to know for the SATs?

It is essential for the following two reasons.

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Finding the right word isn't always easy, but the payoff is worth your time and effort. A precise word dramatically 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 chance 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 on the nouns and verbs that control these principal elements of each sentence.

Spend a Moment on Character

You may think focusing on character description only matters when writing a best seller, but take a moment to focus on practical application and audience.

Although language precision is heavily measured on the SAT, that does not mean 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 enter college, you will be asked to write papers. (Yes, even mathematics and computer science majors write papers.)

Consider the types of papers you must write. The persuasive or argumentative essay 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).

For example, you could argue that Winston Churchill was undoubtedly the most outstanding leader of the twentieth century.

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

The best place to start is the thesaurus. If you write 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 The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. Still, once you select a word, you will want to use a dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster, to ensure you use the word correctly in the sentence.

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 with multiple meanings. Greatest is one of those words.

Also, use your dictionary if you are unsure about a word's meaning. For example, referring to Churchill as the largest or most enormous leader of the past century would be awful!

images from a thesaurus

Know precisely what you want to say, and find the right word to express your meaning. Churchill was skillful and profound. These are better words to articulate an impression of a historical figure!

This technique will also work for research papers and informative pieces where you must provide information about a person. Use caution, however, when expressing opinions in these formats. Sticking to the facts and presenting them using your style and creativity is best.

Narratives and pieces of fiction are a whole new chapter. When describing a living, breathing person, there is more than just physical appearance to consider.

Be clear and precise when explaining how a person looks. Don't just write, "She had long brown hair." Show your reader her hair using actual words. "Her chestnut hair reflected streaks of golden sunlight as it swept across her mid-back."

You need not be a great writer to know this is more precise. A gorilla also has long brown hair.

  • How can one differentiate when the wording is vague?

If you notice in the second description, you get a physical picture and a sense of how the writer might feel about the person described.

Finally, consider the informational papers you will write and why precision is essential in these pieces.

You are writing your bi-weekly progress report for your student teaching assignment (internship, business management project, or whatever). The people reading (your peers and professors) may know a little about your project, but they have less information than you as they try to follow what you have accomplished, with whom you have worked, and so on.

It would help if you used precise, real-life people as subjects to communicate the work completed accurately. 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!

Conversely, 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 your supervising teacher's title or exact position (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 necessary to use this individual's title to illustrate their role in the scenario. If supporting you plays a crucial role in a paragraph or sentence, a more specific title, such as mentor, would work better because it shares with your audience the particular relationship between you and this person. She's more than the teacher who agreed to let you into her classroom — she guides you through a learning process.

If this is the only time we hear about this teacher or 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 their names 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 school's principal recognizing your work is probably more significant to the project's status than your cooperating teacher or mentor doing the same.

Now Look at What Your Nouns Do

The action words you choose determine the tone and feel of your writing because they dictate the images the reader creates in their mind.

Consider the differences in these sentences.

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Notice how changing the action word completely modifies the sentence's meaning, conjures up a different image, and raises other questions.

Got is not a specific action, so it is not easy to picture exactly what happened: reading got could easily conjure up either won or found, for instance — two very different images.

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

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