How to Interpret the Word Choice of a Writer

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  • 0:01 Word Choice
  • 0:46 Choosing Your Words
  • 2:56 Analyzing the Author's Words
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Authors never pick the words in their works by accident. In this lesson, we'll explore the ways that authors use words and see how this impacts our understanding of their work.

Word Choice

Choose your words well. Select the appropriate vocabulary. Pick good things. This lesson could be written by three different writers, each of whom wants to say the same thing but in drastically different ways. For writers, few things are as important to conveying their message as word choice. You see, words actually contain multiple meanings. A word's denotation is its strict definition, but a word's connotation is its implied meaning. Writers select words for their connotations as much as their denotations and understanding this is the first step to appreciating any written work.

Choosing Your Words

To understand how authors use word choice to impact the effectiveness of their pieces, we first need to understand how to use it ourselves. Imagine that we are going to write a detective novel. Our first author begins, 'It was night.' Our second author begins with, 'It was the darkest of nights.' The third author begins, 'The night was young and alive.'

Each author is setting the stage for their story, but by using different words they create different tones. Author 1 presents a neutral description: 'It was night.' This gives us little information, but does let us make our own assumptions about what the night is like. Author 2 presents a more ominous setting, using that additional adjective to heighten the drama and suspense. Author 3 presents an entirely different scene, one of night life. From these single sentences, each author can set up an entirely different story.

Now, obviously, that was a somewhat extreme example. Each author wrote a very different sentence, but word choice can often come down to single words. What different connotations might the words good, benevolent and saintly have? How about happy, jubilant or content? Or scared, terrified and petrified? Each of these words carry specific feelings associated with them that go beyond the simple definition.

Now, it's your turn. We're going to put some sample sentences on the screen. Take a minute to fill in the blanks, thinking about how different words can change the sentence. Try using both synonyms and antonyms to do this, so if you use the word 'good', next try a synonym, like 'superb' and an antonym, like 'bad.' Remember, you can pause this video if you need more time to work on this.

Terry lived in a (blank) neighborhood, surround by (blank). When Terry thought of life here, everything seemed to get (blank). Maybe this town wasn't so (blank) after all.

Analyzing the Author's Words

Now that we can appreciate the ways that words change a passage, we can begin to analyze a writer's own word choices. Writers put a lot of thought and careful, conscious decisions into their work, so we should never assume that any word is used unintentionally. Every word is intentional and, therefore, tells us something about the writer's intent. Every word is a clue.

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