58 7. Commonly Confused Words

Words. They are wonderful tools of expression. They are what make us who we are. They can make us happy, sad, nervous, fearful, excited and proud. A pat on the back is a nice thing, but a few strong words of encouragement go a very long way in making someone feel more comfortable facing a difficult task. But they can also be very confusing if misused. Think about it, about how many words there are and how many words have similar meanings.


I want to take a few minutes to talk about a few word-choice issues that are important to me. I will also assign some material from the handbook for you to look at as well as a practice assignment on choosing words correctly.


Here are some keys to think about when revising your essays for better word choice:

  • Use active verbs. Verbs are perhaps the most important words in any sentence. They carry the action. They give the reader an image of movement, of things happening. They can also create excitement and interest. “I slugged him” is a lot more emphatic than “I hit him,” for instance. Think in terms of verbs working with subjects (nouns or pronouns). What is wrong with this sentence: “Tom was slugged by Joe.”? Who is doing the action? Tom, the poor guy, is just sitting there. Joe is the one who should be carrying the action of the verb: “Joe slugged Tom.” It’s shorter and more emphatic.
  • Don’t use verbs that need prepositions: As I said, verbs are very important words. Prepositions are not so important (I once had a teacher require us to not use any prepositions in an essay- what a difficult assignment that turned out to be, but his point was that we really don’t need to use them very often). So avoid verbs that aren’t complete without the preposition: “set up” (use “establish”); “come upon” (use “discover”); “take hold of” (use “grab”).
  • Short is generally better than long: You don’t need to impress people with fancy words. You do need to express your ideas clearly. Usually, shorter words can be more easily understood by more people. As long as you avoid repetition and elementary language (See Spot Run), shorter words will be stronger words.
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary: Modifiers can be great tools, but they are often over-used. “The radio blared loudly.” Did you ever hear it blare softly?” What about “teeth clenched tightly.”? Try clenching them loosely. The adverb in these two examples is redundant. If the adverb serves a purpose “played badly,” use it. But if it doesn’t “moped dejectedly,” get rid of it.
  • Same with adjectives: “Lacy spiderwebs” sounds colorful, but it is really just taking up space. Envisioning a spiderweb, we automatically see a lacy substance. “Precipitous cliffs (cliff is steep, that’s what precipitous means). You might want to say “sarcastic smile,” but why “friendly smile?” If you just say smile, the reader will think friendly, unless you tell him/her it’s some other kind of smile.
  • Avoid qualifiers- “A little,” “Sort of,” “Rather,” are all vague and basically worthless. Don’t say “I wasn’t too happy because the hotel looked pretty expensive.”
  • When using nouns, be as specific as possible. A red car is a lot different than an apple red Corvette, for instance.
  • Don’t use compound nouns when possible. Modern technology has created this feeling that compound nouns “money problem areas” are more important than single nouns: I am “broke.” As with verbs, nouns can be more emphatic if they are simple, basic, easily understood.
  • Make sure you know the meaning of the word you are using. It’s fine to use a thesaurus to look for options for words, especially to create variety and avoid repetition. But don’t just pull fancy words out of the thesaurus. Look them up in the dictionary, if you don’t know their meanings.
  • Familiarize yourself with similar sounding words (their, there and they’re, for instance). There are many of them. You can find a list of commonly confused words at this site:


I’ve included a brief section in the Written Assignment area for practice in word choice. But think about it regularly. It’s what makes the difference between good and bad writing.


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