4 Finding the Right Word

What are word choice errors?

Have you ever received an assignment back, and been told that you:

Yes No
Used the wrong preposition?
Made a mistake in your”word choice”?
Used the wrong tone?


This kind of feedback often indicates that you have made a word choice error. These errors happen for the following reasons:

  1. Selecting a word with a slightly different range of meaning than your text requires. This often happens when writers select a synonym using a thesaurus or the synonym function in word processing software. Though synonyms have close or related meanings, there are usually some slight differences in the range of meanings that different words have, and the ways they can be used.
  2. Relying heavily on Google translate or bilingual dictionaries to choose words. Again, these errors result from the fact that when we translate between languages, words may be similar, but not exactly the same.

Finding the correct word is difficult because they are usually not fixed grammar rules to help make good choices. The good news is that there are tools available to help select the right word. By understanding how different resources can work together, you will have additional tools to help you select the right word for your purpose.


Reference Materials to Help with Word Choice

  1. General dictionaries

When you use a thesaurus or synonym finder to choose a word, a good additional step is to look up the new synonym you discovered in a general dictionary. This will help you to ensure that its meaning fits correctly in the context of the sentence you are writing.


2. Bilingual dictionaries

A bilingual dictionary is designed to help you find the equivalent word to the word you know in your mother tongue. It assists you when you don’t yet know the English word to express the concept you are trying to write. Often, bilingual writers will use these as their primary dictionary tool. This can create some problems because each language has different ways of structuring how concepts are expressed. Relying too much on a bilingual dictionary can lead to word choices that sound unnatural, likely because they reflect how a concept is expressed in your mother tongue, rather than in English. When you use a bilingual dictionary to find a word, it is helpful to check at least one other source to confirm that this word is the best choice.


3. English learner’s dictionaries

A learner’s dictionary is one of the best tools to have for writing English. ESL Learner’s dictionaries have been published for learners of different abilities; for university writing, you will want an Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Learner’s dictionaries are different from dictionaries that are designed for mother tongue English speakers because:

  • They define words simply and clearly.
  • They include example sentences that show how the word is used correctly.

Though a learner’s dictionary is designed for a non-native speaker of English, many native speakers find these to be a helpful resource because of the additional grammatical information they contain. If you are a native speaker of English, you still may want to have this resource as a part of your writing toolkit.

You can use a learner’s dictionary in several ways:

  1. To look up a word after finding it in a bilingual dictionary, to check that it is truly the best word for what you would like to express.
  2. To find the meaning of a word you do not yet know.
  3. To find out how to correctly use a word that you already know the meaning of, but that you are not sure how to write in a sentence. For example, if you are unsure of what preposition typically follows a certain verb in English, the example sentences in a learner’s dictionary might give you that information.

You can access the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary online at http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/

For more explanation of how to use a learner’s dictionary, see the video below.



Apply it!

Try using the resources you have explored in this module to do the following:

  1. Find out what prepositions go with the verb correlate (or another verb of your choice).
  2. Find a synonym using a thesaurus or synonym finder. Use one additional resource to determine whether this is the best word to use in your sentence.


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