Choose your words carefully — when it counts

Which should you write: “Jane is an adequate team member” or “Jane is an OK team member”? The adjectives in the two options are synonyms.  So how do you choose? Are you wondering about “OK” in a written message at work?

Here’s a list of readers’ attributions made about writers based on a choice to use one of two different words in a workplace email. (These were collected during our own current research project.):

  • unsure
  • reserved
  • vague
  • passive
  • insecure
  • timid
  • confused
  • wordy
  • uncertain
  • showoff

So how much does it really matter whether you choose “adequate” or “OK”?  The answer is a lot. Sometimes.

As I wrote in The psychology of word choice, a writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost of choosing the questionable word is significant enough to trump speed.

Here’s an example from the video tutorial on word choice you’ll find below. The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the choice between “peril” or “risk.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. You need to think strategically about whether you will ignore the cost, the speed, or the quality for every document you create. You can’t deliver all three. Don’t feel guilty about satisficing when the situation calls for it.

But keep in mind that everything you write — even the dozens of daily emails — has consequences for your reader, your organization, and you. Just think carefully BEFORE you satisfice!

Principles for optimizing word choice are explained in Chapter 14 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition).You’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix problems with your choice of words in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from a recommendation report based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook. It has been adapted specifically to explore how pros choose words in workplace documents. I summarize the rhetorical context as:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a commercial brewing company
  • Bottom Line Message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of that report excerpt with better word choice.

Video Tutorial

The recommendation report excerpt is included in this ~10-minute video about choosing words for workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with word choice in workplace documents. You can search for “word choice” or more specific topics like “jargon.” There are zillions of studies of the effects of word choice on readers. You could start with the following sources, which provide support for my guidance.

Biber & Conrad (2009). Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner (2012). Socialization and the acquisition of professional discourse: A case study in the PR industry. Written Communication, 29, pp. 7-32.

Thrush (2001). Plain English? A study of plain English vocabulary and international audiences. Technical Communication, 48(3), pp. 289-296.

Zhang (2013). Business English students learning to write for international business: What do international business practitioners have to say about their texts? English for Specific Purposes, 32(3), pp. 144-156.

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