Effective Use of Language

The Importance of Language

As a writer, it is important not only to think about what you say, but how you say it. To communicate effectively, it is not enough to have well organized ideas expressed in complete and coherent sentences and paragraphs. One must also think about the style, tone and clarity of his/her writing, and adapt these elements to the reading audience. Again, analyzing one's audience and purpose is the key to writing effectiveness. In order to choose the most effective language, the writer must consider the objective of the document, the context in which it is being written, and who will be reading it.

Characteristics of Effective Language

There are six main characteristics of effective language. Effective language is: (1) concrete and specific, not vague and abstract; (2) concise, not verbose; (3) familiar, not obscure; (4) precise and clear, not inaccurate or ambiguous; (5) constructive, not destructive; and (6) appropriately formal.

Concrete and Specific Language

Concrete language includes descriptions which create tangible images with details the reader can visualize. Abstract language is vague and obscure, and does not bring to mind specific visual images. Consider the two sets of statements below. The statement at the top is abstract, but the statements become increasingly concrete and specific toward the bottom.

He is a bad roommate
He is lazy and discourteous
He is untidy and unclean
He doesn't clean up his own messes
He leaves his dirty dishes on the kitchen counter

Your relationship with John is unacceptable
You do not get along well with John
You and John have a lot of arguments
You and John insult each other too much
You and John call each other derogatory names

Notice how much more effective the statements become as the language becomes more specific and concrete. The statements at the top, which are more abstract, can be interpreted in many possible ways, and leave many questions answered. The statements at the bottom, which are more concrete, are less open to multiple interpretations.

Concise Language

A hallmark of effective writers is the ability to express the desired message in as few words as possible. Good writers, in other words, use language which is straightforward and to-the-point. Consider the following examples.

(1) It is widely discussed by employees that many of them will be forced to change jobs and take on new responsibilities when the merger takes place between the two companies.
(2) Before making a decision about whether the person on trial is guilty or innocent in this case, the members of the jury should be sure to carefully think about, ponder and reflect on all of the important and relevant testimony in the case.

Notice how long-winded these sentences are, and how easily they could be shortened and simplified. An important part of revising and editing involves re-phrasing sentences to eliminate excessive wordiness. One way to reduce wordiness is to eliminate redundant words or phrases. Consider example one above. The phrases "to change jobs" and "take on new responsibilities" are redundant, and could be combined into one short phrase to be expressed more concisely.

Consider example two above. The phrase "...should be sure to carefully think about, ponder and reflect on..." contains three ways of saying the same thing. This sentence could be improved by using only one of the key phrases: "...to reflect on..."

A second way to reduce wordiness is to eliminate "filler" words which serve no purpose in the sentence. Consider example one above. Replace the phrase "...when the merger takes place between the two companies" with "...when the two companies merge." Consider example two above. Notice the excessive wordiness in the following phrase: "Before making a decision about whether the person on trial is guilty or innocent in this case ..." This sentence could simply read: "Before determining the defendant's guilt or innocence..."

Familiar Language

Familiar language is that which the readers easily recognize and understand because they use it on a regular basis. One of the most important functions of language is to build "homophily" or a sense of commonality with one's readers. Language which is foreign and unfamiliar to the reader tends to emphasize the differences between writer and reader, and makes the message difficult to understand. By using language that is familiar to the reader, the message is likely to have more impact.

Consider the following examples.

An assignment given to a class of business students by their philosophy professor:
"The presently assigned paper necessitates an eloquently articulated analysis of the Existentialist perspective as it pertains to contemporary living. You should adumbrate the points which represent the sine qua non of your analysis."

A letter sent to high school students warning them of the risks of an unhealthy diet:
"Individuals who maintain a diet of high fat content are exposed to an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of fat deposits on the inner walls of the arteries. This condition can reduce or cut off the flow of blood in the arteries serving the major organs of the body. This can lead to poor health."

In both examples above, the language that is used is unfamiliar to the readers. As a result, the message loses its impact.

Precise and Clear Language

The use of appropriate language is a tricky matter because the meaning of words is relative and situational. In other words, words can be interpreted in different ways by different people in different situations. For this reason, it is important to choose language which is as precise and clear as possible. The more precise and clear one's use of language becomes, the fewer the number of possible interpretations for a message. Consider the following words. What numerical value would you assign to each of them? If something is "probable what percentage of the time does it occur? P>

(1) probable
(2) doubtful
(3) certainly
(4) unlikely
(5) perhaps

Would other people assign the same value to these words as you did? In actuality, the range of values varies greatly because these terms are relative: they can mean different things to different people in different situations. How could one be more precise in his/her use of these terms?

Consider the examples below. Notice that these terms can vary widely in the meaning to different people. The best way to use such relative terms, then, is to compare them to something concrete and "known" to the reader. For example: "Is that Acura an expensive car?" is best answered with a comparison: "Compared to that Honda, the Acura is expensive. Compared to that Lexus, it is inexpensive."


Consider the following examples. Note the potential confusion or ambiguity in these phrases.

(1) Why the student body should continue in this state of apathy is not really understandable.
(2) Our student body is dull and slack-minded.
(3) The practice and theory of politics are studied in the classroom but political habits on campus do not seem to benefit from such labor.
(4) He's an interesting individual.
(5) It is difficult to estimate the number of people affected by AIDS.

Each of the following are actual headlines printed in newspapers. Notice their double meaning.

(1) Include your children when Baking Cookies
(2) Safety Experts Say School Buss Passengers should be Belted
(3) Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board
(4) Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in Ten Years
(5) Eye Drops Off Shelf

In short, it is wise to think carefully about your choice of words and their potential interpretations. To communicate effectively, precise and clear language is essential.

Constructive Language

Constructive language phrases a potentially negative message in a positive way, whereas destructive language directs blame and criticism toward the reader, creating defensiveness. Readers are likely to become defensive when the writer's language expresses any or all of the following: