Friday, July 18, 2008

(19) Vague Word Choice

Specific language is most often the most effective language. Writers should prefer language that is specific and concrete. [ADD/EDIT]

Writers should always strive for specific language. Many words create vague writing, harming the effectiveness of the composition.

Instead of referring to, be sure to specify. Some words and constructions to avoid:


An on-line source for avoiding vague language is available here:

A key problem with vague writing, especially in academic and scholarly writing, is the misconception that the opening paragraph, generally seen as an “introduction,” should begin with general statements, followed by more specific paragraphs. This often leads to vague openings by less experienced writers. I note that this is a misconception because even general openings should be avoided. The beginning of any writing must create some interest in the reader. Neither vague nor general openings will be effective.

One effective opening technique is the use of scholarly personal narrative (see Robert J. Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing). See the following example:

Being an English teacher for nearly twenty years pales in comparison with being the father of a daughter coming through the public school system and sitting daily in language arts class. I have learned an enormous amount about reading and writing instruction—what works, what is counter-educational, why teachers do the things they do—as my child has grown from kindergarten to her current sixth grade. Two moments in my daughter’s life stand out as I consider the impact the current standards movement has had on reading and writing instruction.

This year, my eleven-year-old daughter, Jessica, made an observation: “All they care about is the PACT test; they don’t care if we learn anything.” She was speaking of the most recent statewide testing (in South Carolina) that will determine grade promotion and eventually graduation.

A few years ago, as a third grader, Jessica failed a text-prepared test on complete sentences. The assistant superintendent at the time ran a reading level check on the test, finding that the sentences on this third-grade test were written on the eighth-grade reading level. My daughter had marked as fragments sentences she did not understand in terms of content; to her, these sentences were incomplete thoughts, thus fragments. At home I gave her what I felt was an authentic measure of her understanding of complete sentences. After being asked to write a series of ten sentences from ten separate verbal prompts such as, “Write a sentence about playing soccer,” she wrote ten grammatically complete sentences with standard capitalization and punctuation. The child understood complete sentences, but the text-supplied test had falsely measured her as a failure.

Yet, when I spoke with her teacher about the test, she expressed a perceived obligation to give the test because that was what she felt the administration wanted and that was what students needed for the standardized tests that year. She sincerely believed that the isolated instruction and assessment that she was implementing were required for preparation to take standardized tests—never questioning whether the testing was legitimate or not. As a professional educator, she had never questioned the authenticity of measuring a child’s editing skills as a reflection of a child’s ability to compose complete sentences—and she had never questioned the quality of the text-supplied test. The reductionistic nature of high-stakes testing as the de facto curriculum had distorted both the students’ authentic understanding of language and the teacher’s professional legitimacy.

In the sample above, I opened my scholarly essay with a personal narrative that creates interest in the reader while also focusing the intent of the essay (accomplishing more authentically the traditional call for writers to open with an introduction that includes an overt thesis sentence). Throughout the opening included above, I also chose as many specific details as possible, including diction that is specific and clear. Look carefully at the passage above. What aspects of it give the writing specificity?