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in Student Writing

Learning to See the Things Kids Can Do So  We Can
Teach Them to Do the Things They Can't

by Steve Peha

Specific and Memorable Word Choice

So many words, so little time.

If you’re writing in English, you get a bonus that can’t be found in most other languages: an extra 300,000 words or so. At just over 490,000 words (and still growing strong), the English language is the largest in the world. So, when it comes to deciding which word to use where, you’ve got plenty of choices.

Strong Verbs That Tell How Actions are Performed

Verbs are words that describe the action in a sentence. Some verbs are said to be stronger than others, and these are the ones that tend to make your writing more effective. Here’s how it works: take a verb like “run” and another verb with a similar meaning like “sprint.” Now, compare these two sentences: (1) “I was running.”; (2) “I was sprinting.” They seem more or less the same, but they’re not. In the first sentence, you learn that I was running, but in the second sentence you also learn how I was running. The word “sprint” means “to run at top speed for a brief moment.” So, when I say “sprinting,” I get all the meaning of the verb “run,” plus the additional meaning that explains how I was running as well. This is like getting an adverb for free (or in this case an entire adverbial phrase); the action and a description of the action are packed into one tiny word. That’s what makes it stronger: it’s a single word that contains the meaning of an entire group of words!

So, how does the author of Chores do when it comes to using strong verbs?


    Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
    Toilets! When you’re scrubbing toilets make sure they are not stinky. I’ve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didn’t stink. I think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
    Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one before and it was pretty easy.
    Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.
    All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so many things to dust, and it’s no fun.
    Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best!

Not so great. I do see one strong verb: “scrub.” When she uses the words “scrubbing” or “scrubbed” instead of “cleaning” or “cleaned,” she gets the benefit of a stronger verb. To “scrub” means “to clean something by rubbing hard.” Other than that, I don’t find any other strong verbs. But at least she got one.

Adjectives and Adverbs That Make Things More Specific

Say I’m in one of those huge underground parking lots. You know, the ones with all the floors that look exactly the same. Say I come back from several hours of shopping and I can’t remember where I parked. After searching franticly for an hour or so, I’ll probably give up and try to find a parking attendant to help me. The first question he’s going to ask me is, “What kind of car do you have?” And I’ll say, “Oh, you know, it’s just a car.” And then he’ll look at me like I’m an even bigger idiot than he already thought I was. Why? Because I’m not being specific enough for him to help me.

Writing is like that, too. You have to be specific in order to help your readers understand you. If you write, “The man drove away in his car,” that’s not nearly as helpful to your readers as, “The elated, young man drove away swiftly in the shiny new car his parents had just given him for his 18th birthday.” What’s the difference? Adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs modify the nouns and verbs they work with to make them more specific. Adjectives modify nouns and answer the question “What kind?” What kind of man? An “elated” “young” man. What kind of car? A “shiny” “new” car. Adverbs modify verbs and answer the question “How?” How did he drive away? He drove away “swiftly.”

In Chores, the writing is not very specific in this regard. We know that toilets are sometimes “stinky,” that cleaning a sink is “easy,” and that all chores are “boring,” but this doesn’t do that much for us. The language is generic throughout; the writer uses few effective adjectives and adverbs and, as we just noticed, only one strong verb. We know about bathtubs, sinks, and toilets, but we don’t know much that's very specific about them.

Words and Phrases Readers Remember Long After They’ve Finished Reading

One way you can tell that you’ve read a good piece of writing is when you remember some of the words long after you’ve finished it. After all, if writing is first and foremost the communication of ideas, it would be nice if people actually remembered a little of what you wrote. No one can remember all the words in a piece, but sometimes a few words here and there are so interesting or unusual we can’t forget them.

As we’ve already discussed, much of the language in Chores is generic, the writer uses simple everyday words and phrases. However, there is one part that I always remember even though it has been several years now since I first read it: “Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down.” To me, this way of describing the tedious, repetitive nature of dusting seemed so interesting and original that I’ve never forgotten it.

Words and Phrases Used Accurately and Effectively

Good word choice doesn’t mean using big, fancy, unusual words. It means using the right words to say the right thing in just the right way. Here’s an example I came across recently in the beginning of an essay about a jogging accident: “Having already stretched and run a fourth of my distance, I arrived at my favorite spot and halted.” At first glance, the word “halted” seems like a good choice. It’s a word we don’t use that often and it’s very specific, a good strong verb. But it may not be exactly the right word in this situation. To my ear (though you may disagree), the word “halted” suggests that he was caused to stop by someone or some thing. (I hear the old war movie phrase in my head: “Halt! Who goes there?”) But nothing caused him to stop; he just stopped all by himself. And that’s the word I think he should have used: “stopped.”

Use simple words to describe simple things. Don’t rush off to a thesaurus and sprinkle synonyms all over your piece the way an overzealous chef adds spices to his cooking. (And don’t use a word like “overzealous” when a simpler one like “enthusiastic” will do.) Use words that mean exactly what you mean to say, and no others. In Chores, the writer uses very simple words. The language isn't flashy or attention-getting but it gets the job done.

Language That is Appropriate to Purpose and Audience

Let me just say this right up front: there are many words you should probably never use in writing and you know what most of those words are. But there’s more to appropriateness than avoiding bad language. Your first and highest priority when considering word choice is to choose words that your audience will understand. I can show off and use a whole bunch of big words, or I can say the same thing as simply as possible, using little words that I know just about everyone can understand. Using big words may make me feel smart and superior, but it won’t help me be understood. And that’s the most important thing.

It doesn’t matter how large your vocabulary is if knowing all those words means that you consistently choose ones your readers cannot read. Similarly, you can have a relatively small vocabulary and still be an effective writer. There are two things you have to know to be good at word choice:(1) you have to know what words mean; and (2) you have to know what your readers think they mean. In Chores, the writer is writing to kids her own age; she’s using very simple words because those are the kinds of words she and her friends know.

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