Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the reasons why using a dictionary and thesaurus is important when writing.
  2. Identify how to use proper connotations.
  3. Identify how to avoid using slang, clichés, and overly general words in your writing.

Effective writing involves making conscious choices with words. Some writers are picky about word choice. They may practice some specific strategies, such as using a dictionary and thesaurus, using words and phrases with proper connotations, and avoiding slang, clichés, and overly general words.

Remember, the skill and accuracy of your word choice is a major factor in developing your writing style. Precise selection of your words will help you be more clearly understood—in both writing and speaking.

Using a Dictionary and Thesaurus

Even professional writers need help with the meanings, spellings, pronunciations, and uses of particular words. In fact, they rely on dictionaries to help them write better. 

Most dictionaries provide the following information:

  • Spelling. How the word and its different forms are spelled.
  • Pronunciation. How to say the word.
  • Part of speech. The function of the word.
  • Definition. The meaning of the word.
  • Synonyms. Words that have similar meanings.
  • Etymology. The history of the word.

Look at the following sample dictionary entry and see which of the preceeding information you can identify:

myth, mith, n. [Gr. mythos, a word, a fable, a legend.] A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their own beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story; something or someone having no existence in fact.—myth • icmyth • i • cal

Like a dictionary, a thesaurus is another indispensable writing tool. A thesaurus gives you a list of synonyms, words that have the same (or very close to the same) meaning as another word. It also lists antonyms, words with the opposite meaning of the word. 

precocious adjShe’s such a precocious little girl!: uncommonly smart, mature, advanced, smart, bright, brilliant, gifted, quick, clever, apt.

Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

Using Proper Connotations

A denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. A connotation, on the other hand, is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word. The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral. Keep in mind the connotative meaning when choosing a word.


  • Denotation: Exceptionally thin and slight or meager in body or size.
  • Word used in a sentence: Although he was a premature baby and a scrawny child, Martin has developed into a strong man.
  • Connotation: (Negative) In this sentence the word scrawny may have a negative connotation in the readers’ minds. They might find it to mean a weakness or a personal flaw; however, the word fits into the sentence appropriately.


  • Denotation: Lacking sufficient flesh, very thin.
  • Word used in a sentence: Skinny jeans have become very fashionable in the past couple of years.
  • Connotation: (Positive) Based on cultural and personal impressions of what it means to be skinny, the reader may have positive connotations of the word skinny.


  • Denotation: Lacking or deficient in flesh; containing little or no fat.
  • Word used in a sentence: My brother has a lean figure, whereas I have a more muscular build.
  • Connotation: (Neutral) In this sentence, lean has a neutral connotation. It does not call to mind an overly skinny person like the word scrawny, nor does imply the positive cultural impressions of the word skinny. It is merely a neutral descriptive word.

Notice that all the words have a very similar denotation; however, the connotations of each word differ.

Exercise 1

In each of the following items, you will find three words with similar denotations. Identify each word's connotation as positive, negative, or neutral.

  1. curious, nosy, interested
  2. lazy, relaxed, slow
  3. courageous, foolhardy, assured
  4. new, newfangled, modern
  5. mansion, shack, residence
  6. spinster, unmarried woman, career woman
  7. giggle, laugh, cackle
  8. boring, routine, prosaic
  9. noted, notorious, famous
  10. assertive, confident, pushy

Avoiding Slang

Slang describes informal words that are considered nonstandard English. Slang often changes with passing fads and may be used by or familiar to only a specific group of people. Most people use slang when they speak and in personal correspondences, such as e-mails, text messages, and instant messages. Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context but should be avoided in formal academic writing.

Avoiding Clichés

Clichés are descriptive expressions that have lost their effectiveness because they are overused. Writing that uses clichés often suffers from a lack of originality and insight. Avoiding clichés in formal writing will help you write in original and fresh ways.

  • Clichéd: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes my blood boil.
  • Plain: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me really angry.
  • Original: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me want to go to the gym and punch the bag for a few hours.

Exercise 2

On your own sheet of paper, revise the following sentences by replacing the clichés with fresh, original descriptions.

  1. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
  2. Fran had an ax to grind with Benny, and she planned to confront him that night at the party.
  3. Mr. Muller was at his wit’s end with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
  4. The bottom line is that Greg was fired because he missed too many days of work.
  5. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
  6. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
  7. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jeff a taste of his own medicine.
  8. While they were at the carnival Janice exclaimed, “Time sure does fly when you are having fun!”
  9. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.
  10. Jordan was dressed to the nines that night.

Avoiding Overly General Words

Specific words and images make your writing more interesting to read. Whenever possible, avoid overly general words in your writing; instead, try to replace general language with particular nouns, verbs, and modifiers that convey details and that bring yours words to life. Add words that provide color, texture, sound, and even smell to your writing.

  • General: My new puppy is cute.
  • Specific: My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with the biggest black eyes I have ever seen.
  • General: My teacher told us that plagiarism is bad.
  • Specific: My teacher, Ms. Atwater, created a presentation detailing exactly how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

Key Takeaways

  • Using a dictionary and thesaurus as you write will improve your writing by improving your word choice.
  • Connotations of words may be positive, neutral, or negative.
  • Slang, clichés, and overly general words should be avoided in academic writing.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the meanings of common prefixes.
  2. Become familiar with common suffix rules.

The English language contains an enormous and ever-growing number of words. Enhancing your vocabulary by learning new words can seem overwhelming, but if you know the common prefixes and suffixes of English, you will understand many more words.

Mastering common prefixes and suffixes is like learning a code. Once you crack the code, you can not only spell words more correctly but also recognize and perhaps even define unfamiliar words.


A prefix is a word part added to the beginning of a word to create a new meaning. Study the common prefixes in the table below. The main rule to remember when adding a prefix to a word is not to add letters or leave out any letters. 

Common Prefixes

dis                         not, opposite of                 dis + satisfied = dissatisfied
miswronglymis + spell = misspell
unnotun + acceptable = unacceptable
reagainre + election = reelection
interbetweeninter + related = interrelated
prebeforepre + pay = prepay
nonnotnon + sense = nonsense
super  abovesuper + script = superscript
subundersub + merge = submerge
antiagainst, opposing  anti + bacterial = antibacterial

Exercise 3

Add the correct prefix to the word to complete each sentence. Write the word on your own sheet of paper.

  1. I wanted to ease my stomach ________comfort, so I drank some ginger root tea.
  2. Lenny looked funny in his ________matched shirt and pants.
  3. Penelope felt ________glamorous at the party because she was the only one not wearing a dress.
  4. My mother said those ________aging creams do not work, so I should not waste my money on them.
  5. The child’s ________standard performance on the test alarmed his parents.
  6. When my sister first saw the meteor, she thought it was a ________natural phenomenon.
  7. Even though she got an excellent job offer, Cherie did not want to ________locate to a different country.
  8. With a small class size, the students get to ________act with the teacher more frequently.
  9. I slipped on the ice because I did not heed the ________cautions about watching my step.
  10. A ________combatant is another word for civilian.


A suffix is a word part added to the end of a word to create a new meaning. Study the suffix rules in the following boxes.

Rule 1

When adding the suffixes –ness and –ly to a word, the spelling of the word does not change.


    • dark + ness = darkness
    • scholar + ly = scholarly

Exceptions to Rule 1

When the word ends in y, change the y to i before adding –ness and –ly.


    • ready + ly = readily
    • happy + ness = happiness

Rule 2

When the suffix begins with a vowel, drop the silent e in the root word.


    • care + ing = caring
    • use + able = usable

Exceptions to Rule 2

When the word ends in ce or ge, keep the silent e if the suffix begins with a or o.


    • replace + able = replaceable
    • courage + ous = courageous

Rule 3

When the suffix begins with a consonant, keep the silent e in the original word.


    • care + ful = careful
    • care + less = careless

Exceptions to Rule 3


    • true + ly = truly
    • argue + ment = argument

Rule 4

When the word ends in a consonant plus y, change the y to i before any suffix not beginning with i.


  • sunny + er = sunnier
  • hurry + ing = hurrying

Rule 5

When the suffix begins with a vowel, double the final consonant only if (1) the word has only one syllable or is accented on the last syllable and (2) the word ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant.


  • tan + ing = tanning (one syllable word)
  • regret + ing = regretting (The accent is on the last syllable; the word ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant.)
  • cancel + ed = canceled (The accent is not on the last syllable.)
  • prefer + ed = preferred

Exercise 4

On your own sheet of paper, write correctly the forms of the words with their suffixes.

  1. refer + ed
  2. refer + ence
  3. mope + ing
  4. approve + al
  5. green + ness
  6. benefit + ed
  7. resubmit + ing
  8. use + age
  9. greedy + ly
  10. excite + ment

Key Takeaways

  • A prefix is a word part added to the beginning of a word that changes the word’s meaning.
  • A suffix is a word part added to the end of a word that changes the word’s meaning.
  • Learning the meanings of prefixes and suffixes will help expand your vocabulary, which will help improve your writing.

Synonyms and Antonyms

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize how synonyms improve writing.
  2. Identify common antonyms to increase your vocabulary.

As you work with your draft, you will want to pay particular attention to the words you have chosen. Do they express exactly what you are trying to convey? Can you choose better, more effective words? Familiarity with synonyms and antonyms can be helpful in answering these questions.


Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same, meaning as another word. You can say an “easy task” or a “simple task” because easy and simple are synonyms. You can say Hong Kong is a “large city” or a “metropolis” because city and metropolis are synonyms.

However, it is important to remember that not all pairs of words in the English language are so easily interchangeable. The slight but important differences in meaning between synonyms can make a big difference in your writing. For example, the words boring and insipid may have similar meanings, but the subtle differences between the two will affect the message your writing conveys. The word insipid evokes a scholarly and perhaps more pretentious message than boring.

The English language is full of pairs of words that have subtle distinctions between them. All writers, professionals and beginners alike, face the challenge of choosing the most appropriate synonym to best convey their ideas. When you pay particular attention to synonyms in your writing, it comes across to your reader. The sentences become much more clear and rich in meaning.

Exercise 5  Write the correct synonym for each word.

a. lenient ________(relaxed, callous)
b. abandon ________(vacate, deceive)
c. berate ________(criticize, encourage)
d. experienced ________(callow, matured)
e. spiteful ________(malevolent, mellow)
f. tame ________(subdued, wild)
g. tasty ________(savory, bland)
h. banal ________(common, interesting)
i. contradict ________(deny, revolt)
j. vain ________(boastful, simple)


Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning of a given word. The study of antonyms will not only help you choose the most appropriate word as you write; it will also sharpen your overall sense of language. 

Common Antonyms

WordAntonym  WordAntonym
absence          presence                   frequent                seldom
createdestroy, demolishlikelyunlikely
boldtimid, meekminoritymajority

Key Takeaways

  • Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same, meaning as another word.
  • Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning of another word.
  • Choosing the right synonym refines your writing.
  • Learning common antonyms sharpens your sense of language and expands your vocabulary.

Using Context Clues

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the different types of context clues.
  2. Practice using context clues while reading.

Context clues are bits of information within a text that will assist you in deciphering the meaning of unknown words. Since most of your knowledge of vocabulary comes from reading, it is important that you recognize context clues. By becoming more aware of particular words and phrases surrounding a difficult word, you can make logical guesses about its meaning. The following are the different types of context clues:

  • Brief definition or restatement
  • Synonyms and antonyms
  • Examples

Brief Definition or Restatement

Sometimes a text directly states the definition or a restatement of the unknown word. The brief definition or restatement is signaled by a word or a punctuation mark. Consider the following example:

If you visit Alaska, you will likely see many glaciers, or slow moving masses of ice.

In this sentence, the word glaciers is defined by the phrase that follows the signal word or, which is slow moving masses of ice.

Marina was indignant—fuming mad—when she discovered her brother had left for the party without her.

Although fuming mad is not a formal definition of the word indignant, it does serve to define it. These two examples use signals—the word or and the punctuation dashes—to indicate the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Other signals to look for are the words isasmeansknown as, and refers to.

Synonyms and Antonyms

Sometimes a text gives a synonym of the unknown word to signal the meaning of the unfamiliar word:

When you interpret an image, you actively question and examine what the image connotes and suggests.

In this sentence the word suggests is a synonym of the word connotes. The word and sometimes signals synonyms.

Likewise, the word but may signal a contrast, which can help you define a word by its antonym.

I abhor clothes shopping, but I adore grocery shopping.

The word abhor is contrasted with its opposite: adore. From this context, the reader can guess that abhor means to dislike greatly.


Sometimes a text will give you an example of the word that sheds light on its meaning:

I knew Mark’s ailurophobia was in full force because he began trembling and stuttering when he saw my cat, Ludwig, slink out from under the bed.

Although ailurophobia is an unknown word, the sentence gives an example of its effects. Based on this example, a reader could confidently surmise that the word means a fear of cats.


Look for signal words like such asfor instance, and for example. These words signal that a word’s meaning may be revealed through an example.

Exercise 6

Identify the context clue that helps define the underlined words in each of the following sentences. Write the context clue on your own sheet of paper.

  1. Lucinda is very adroit on the balance beam, but Constance is rather clumsy.
  2. I saw the entomologist, a scientist who studies insects, cradle the giant dung beetle in her palm.
  3. Lance’s comments about politics were irrelevant and meaningless to the botanist’s lecture on plant reproduction.
  4. Before I left for my trip to the Czech Republic, I listened to my mother’s sage advice and made a copy of my passport.
  5. His rancor, or hatred, for socializing resulted in a life of loneliness and boredom.
  6. Martin was mortified, way beyond embarrassment, when his friends teamed up to shove him into the pool.
  7. The petulant four-year-old had a baby sister who was, on the contrary, not grouchy at all.
  8. The philosophy teacher presented the students with several conundrums, or riddles, to solve.
  9. Most Americans are omnivores, people that eat both plants and animals.
  10. Elena is effervescent, as excited as a cheerleader, for example, when she meets someone for the first time.

Key Takeaways

  • Context clues are words or phrases within a text that help clarify vocabulary that is unknown to you.
  • There are several types of context clues including brief definition and restatement, synonyms and antonyms, and example.

Last modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 4:34 PM