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Vocabulary Usage

As we have seen, choice of words is very important from the stylistic point of view. "Proper words in proper places", to use Swift's phrase, is the principle to follow. This presents at least two problems: (1) how to build up a vocab­ulary large enough to choose from, and (2) how to choose the correct word, that is, what are the criteria of choice. Extensive reading is the answer to both problems.

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  Janet Daetton  —  Grammar Tips
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By reading a wide variety of authors and various types of writing you can build up your vocabulary and acquire the necessary skill in the proper use of words, phrases and idioms. Consciously or subconsciously, while reading, you develop an ear for what is right and what is wrong. Another indispensable aid is dictionaries and reference books; the student should develop the habit of checking usage with the help of dictionaries that give definitions and peculiarities of usage in English.

Besides dictionaries there is a great variety of reference books where one can find information on synonyms, antonyms, idioms, proverbs, literary quotations and so on. The recommendations which follow, together with dictionaries and reference books, will help the student to improve his style in writing.

Below are the general recommendations we would offer to follow in writing:

1. Use concrete words.

A "general" word expresses a general notion which may be made more specific. Thus for example walk is a general word for the following sequence of specific verbs: stroll, stagger, stride, shuffle, trot, plod, etc. Each verb in this sequence denotes a specific mode of walking. In writing, whenever possible, use a specific word, as it gives a clearer idea of what you want to say.

Specific, concrete words are picture-making words; they are more likely to touch the reader's imagination, whereas general words are usually neutral. Thus, for example, the sentence The man was attacked with a deadly weapon sounds ineffectual, as it contains two general words. A much more vivid picture is given by the following combinations: stabbed with a knife; shot dead, slashed with a razor blade.

When choosing a verb, one should remember that verbs in constant use, such as be, go, feel, have, become, etc., have lost much of their power and are apt to weaken one's style, especially in descriptive and narrative passages. A composition can be con­sidered highly improved by replacing overworked verbs with more forceful ones. Here are some examples.

Weak:

Black smoke was coming out of the engine.
Flames were reaching the petrol tanks.

Strong:

Black smoke belched out of the rear of the engine.
Flames licked the petrol tanks.

Students with a limited vocabulary often use a combination of a neutral general verb with a qualifying adverb where a single specific verb would have been more effective.

e. g. He ran quickly. — He rushed/dashed.; She was breathing heavily. — She was panting.

2. Avoid overused adjectives and adverbs.

Overused, and there­fore, weak adverbs and adjectives such as very, pretty, rather, little, good, nice, hard, impair your style. Compare the following examples.
The book is bad. - The book is boring/badly written.

What a good design! - What a clever/ingenious design!

3. Do not mix different degrees of formality.

One of the grave mistakes which students are apt to make consists in using collo­quial or even slangy expressions in neutral-formal style as in the following:

a. The Cabinet meets for a few hours twice a week during parliamentary sittings, and a bit less frequently when Parlia­ment is not sitting. (Neutral rather should be used.)

b. It is the duty of the Prime Minister to keep an eye on the departments. (Formal supervise would be more appropriate.)

Slang is defined as "words and phrases in common colloquial use", but generally considered in some or all of their senses to be outside of Standard English. As such it is usually inappropriate in formal writing.

One can occasionally use it with a special purpose, for example in a speech portrayal of a character, but this should be done with great discretion. The treacherous thing about slang is that it changes with time and circumstances, each period and group of people having its own slang, so that it is quite easy to make the mistake of using it anachronistically. For example it would be inappropriate, writing an essay on Tom Jones, to use the slang of today, and doubly Inappropriate to use the slang of Jim Holden, because it is American.

Students who have learnt to avoid using slang may go to the other extreme and feel that a simple and direct style is not good enough for important ideas. They may tend to use stilted, bookish words and phrases, e. g.

a) He told me what to do and I accomplished the operation (instead of the simple and direct / did it).

b) She had taken it for granted that I would give assent to her project (instead of agree. Cf. The queen has to give her assent to bills before they can become law where 'give assent' is appropriate).

The current trend in English writing is to explain even difficult subjects in clear and simple language.

4. Use idioms with care.

Idioms, like words, differ in their stylistic value: some of them are colloquial, others slangy, or even vulgar, and therefore inappropriate in formal writing. The stylistic function of idioms is to make writing more expressive, emphatic and vivid, and, often, more concise. Brevity is achieved because idiom is a kind of code known to everybody, so that even a modified idiom evokes the whole situation, as in the following example: He counted his chickens too soon. The meaning is clear to those that know the proverb Never count your chickens before they are hatched. Idioms should be used like a pinch of salt, or a sprinkle of pepperoverdo it, and the whole will be spoilt. They're kind of help for essay writing, teachers and professors are highly appreciate idioms in students' essays.

5. Make wider use of verbs with postpositives.

Another way of making your writing more idiomatic and up-to-date is using verbs with postpositives, such as to give in, to turn up, etc. instead of one-word verbs surrender, appear. They used to belong to the spoken informal variety of English, but with the wider use of them in newspaper language many of them have become an accepted feature of the written language as well. Without them Writing does not sound natural enough, and there is a trend nowadays to use them more freely even in formal style, e. g.

a. The march was called off (cancelled).
b. The proposal was turned down (rejected).

Nouns derived from the verbs with postpositives are becoming increasingly widespread in English writing, partly under the in fluence of newspaper usage. Here are a few examples of the most common of them:
break-down — collapse
flash-back — return to an earlier period (in films, novels)
break-through— major achievement
flare-up — outbreak of hostility
drop-out — a person who drops out of society
set-back — impediment

6. Avoid cliches.

"A cliche is an outworn commonplace; a phrase that has become so hackneyed that scrupulous speakers and writ­ers shrink from it because they feel that its use is an insult to (he intelligence of their auditor or audience." (Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Cliches)

Cliches range from high-flown phrases (explore every avenue) to quotations ( the two evils choose the least, Erasmus of Rot­terdam ), metaphors (the arms of Morpheus), idioms (It's raining cats and dogs), set phrases (last but not least).

The use of a cliche may sometimes be justified if it is appropriate as regards its stylistic value and the context, and if used very occasionally; a piling-up of cliches is absolutely inadmissible.

7. Avoid unnecessary words.

Good writing implies avoiding un­necessary words. Here is a piece of sound advice from E. B. White: "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. This requires not that the writer make all the sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word should tell."

Compare the following examples:
(1) Whenever anyone called for someone to help him to do something, Jim was always the first to volunteer and lend his help for the cause. (2) Whenever anyone asked for help, Jim was always the first to volunteer.

The first sentence is wordy and muddled the second concise and clear. The second variant is also more forceful.

Wordiness means the use of more words than one actually needs to express one's idea. Certain words such as fact, factor, feature, field, case, character, nature, etc. are especially abused by the lovers of wordiness. Consider the following examples:

Wordy: owing to the fact that; in spite of the fact that; I was unaware of the fact that; the fact that he did not succeed in advertising; acts of a hostile nature; it has rarely been the case that; any mistakes have been made after a short period of time.

Concise
: since, because; though, although; I was unaware that (I did not know); his failure in the field of advertising; hostile acts; mistakes have been rare; after a while, presently.

Here is a list of some phrases in common use which should I generally be avoided, as they are wordy. Their concise equivalents are given in brackets: the question whether ( whether) ; there is no doubt that (no doubt/doubtless that); he is a man who (he); this is a subject that (this subject); his story is a strange one (his story is strange or, more literary and emphatic: his is a strange story).

Quite often a word of classical origin (Latin or Greek) helps us to avoid wordiness, for it expresses in one word what would need a phrase or even a clause in native English, e. g. impercep­tible changesunable to be seen or perceived; provocative argu­ments — intentionally irritating or designed to produce a strong reaction.

Tautology, i. e. repetition of words and phrases synony­mous or close in meaning, should also be avoided. Consider the following examples of tautology. In each sentence either 1 or 2 should have been left out as redundant.

I happened (1) to meet her by chance (2) at the theatre. (1 met her by chance...)

That should leave (1) me with twenty pounds left (2). (I should have twenty pounds left.)

9. Avoid unintentional alliteration.

Alliteration, or repetition of similar sounds in two or more words, is an accepted device in poetry, and, less often, in prose. Unintentional alliteration in prose, however, jars on your ear, distracting your attention from the meaning of the words. Consider the following examples of unwanted alliteration.

He was a most charming chap.
Here a grave grief attacked her.

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