Using Plain and Precise Language

The SAT Writing Test is not a place to show off your vocabulary. To write clearly, use plain words. Use an elegant word only when it”s the best and only word that expresses what you want to say. Why? Because an elegant word used merely to use an elegant word is bombastic…er…big-sounding and artificial. Besides, simple ideas dressed up in ornate words often obscure meaning. Or worse, they make writers sound phony if not foolish. For instance, under ordinary circumstances you”d never utter the words, “Let”s go to our domiciles” at the end of a day at school. Nor would you call your teachers pedagogues or your dog a canine. Yet, the following overblown sentence appeared in a student”s essay:

Although my history pedagogue insisted that I labor in my domicile immediately upon arrival, I was obliged to air my canine before commencing.

How much clearer and more direct it would have been to write:

I had to walk the dog before starting my history homework.

Fortunately, English is loaded with simple words that can express the most profound ideas. A sign that says STOP! conveys its message more clearly than CEASE AND DESIST. When a dentist pokes at your teeth, it hurts, even if dentists call it “experiencing discomfort.” Simple doesn”t necessarily mean short, however. It”s true that plain words tend to be the short ones, but not always. The word fid is short, but it”s not plain unless you are a sailor, in which case you”d know that a fid supports the mast on your boat or is an instrument used to pry open a tight knot in your lines. On the other hand, spontaneously is five syllables long. Yet it is a plain and simple word because of its frequent use.

Simple ideas dressed up in ornate words not only obscure meaning but make writers sound pretentious:


The more I recalled her degradation of me, the more inexorable I became.


The more I thought of her insults, the more determined I grew.


Lester has a proclivity toward prevarication.


Lester is a liar.


The coterie of harriers gleaned the salience of synergy in competitive racing engagements.


The runners learned that teamwork pays off in races.

Ernest Hemingway called a writer”s greatest gift a “built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” Hemingway”s own detector worked well. He produced about the leanest, plainest writing in the English language—not that you should try to emulate Hemingway. (That”s already been done by countless imitators.) But an efficient crap detector of your own will encourage you to choose words only because they express exactly what you mean.


Of course there are occasions when the plainest words won”t do. Fortunately, our language provides countless euphemisms—words and phrases that express unsavory or objectionable ideas more delicately. In some contexts—a funeral service, for instance—the verb die may be too coarse or painful. In its place, a euphemism such as pass away, pass on, be deceased, rest, expire, meet one”s maker may be more suitable. Think also of toilet, a word almost never posted on a public bathroom door. Instead, you”ll find such labels as W.C., lounge, powder room, washroom, comfort station, and, probably the most euphemistic usage of all—ladies and men.

Euphemisms unquestionably have their place and function. In essay writing, however, use them only when you have a valid reason for doing so.

Don”t interpret this admonition to use plain words as a reason to use the language of blogging, IMs, or texting in your SAT essay. Everyday language brims with colorful words and expressions like hulk out, cop some z”s, awesome, and total babe, has its place, but its place is not your SAT essay unless you definitely need the latest lingo to create an effect that you can”t produce in any other way. If you insist on using slang, that”s okay, but don”t use quotation marks to draw attention to the fact that you can”t think of standard or more original words. If, to make a point, you overload your essay with slang, be sure to demonstrate your mastery of standard English in at least part of the piece. After all, colleges want to know that you can write good, standard prose.

For the SAT, a plain, conversational style will always be appropriate. The language should sound like you. In formal essays, custom requires you to remove yourself from stage center and focus on the subject matter. But SAT essays encourage more casual responses in which references to yourself are perfectly acceptable. It”s not essential to use the first-person singular pronoun, but using I is often preferable to using the more impersonal one, as in “When one is writing an SAT essay, one sometimes writes funny,” or you, as in “Sometimes you feel like a dope,” or by avoiding pronouns altogether. But an essay that expresses the writer”s personal opinion will sound most natural when cast in first-person singular.

The point is, don”t be phony! SAT essay readers are old hands at spotting pretense in students” writing. Let your genuine voice ring out, although the way you speak is not necessarily the way you should write. Spoken language is often vague, clumsy, repetitive, confused, and wordy. Consider writing as the everyday speech of someone who speaks exceedingly well—grammatically correct and free of pop expressions and clichés. Think of it as the kind of mature speech expected of you in serious conversation, say, with a panel of parents concerned about your school”s curriculum. Or maybe even the way this paragraph sounds. You could do a lot worse!

Precise Language

Precise words are memorable, but hazy, hard-to-grasp words fade quickly away. Tell your garage mechanic vaguely, “This car is broken,” and he”ll ask for more information. Say precisely “My car won”t start in freezing weather,” and he”ll raise the engine hood and go to work. If a patient in the E.R. says, “I feel pain,” a surgeon might at least like to know exactly where it hurts before pulling out her scalpels. In other words, precise language is more informative, more functional, and thus more desirable.

In the first draft of an essay, Jeff S. used the following to illustrate what happened on a day he”d like to forget:

It was an awful day outside. Everything was going wrong. I felt terrible. Things weren”t going well in school. I got a below-par grade on a paper, and I was sure that I had failed my science quiz. I also had lots of things to do at home and no time to do them. My mother was in a bad mood, too. She yelled at me for all kinds of things. Then Penny called, and we got into a disagreement. I had trouble with the speakers on my laptop, and I couldn”t pay for repairs. I went to bed early, hoping that tomorrow would be better.

Reviewing this paragraph a few days later, Jeff realized the writing begged for more precise language. Yes, the day had been dreadful, but his account needed details to prove it. The next draft took care of that:

On a cold and rainy November day, my life was as miserable as the weather. I felt chills all day, and my throat was sore. In school I got a D on a history paper about the Bubonic Plague, and I was sure that I had failed the chemistry quiz. The homework was piling up: two lab reports, more than 150 pages to read in Wuthering Heights, a chapter in the history text, and about a hundred new vocabulary words in Spanish. I didn”t have time or energy to do it all, especially when my mother started to pick at me about my messy room and the thank you letters I”m supposed to write to my grandparents. Just as she was reminding me that my SAT registration was overdue, Penny called to say that she couldn”t come for Thanksgiving after all, so we argued about loyalty and trust and keeping promises. When I tried to watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2again, the sound was distorted. Human voices sounded like chattering chipmunks. On the phone the repairman said he would charge $100 just to look at the damn thing, but I don”t have that kind of money. By 9:00 P.M. I was in bed, hoping that tomorrow would be better.

In this version Jeff included many precise details that vividly illustrate the wretchedness of that miserable day. Not every paragraph of every essay calls for such detail. But an essay consisting solely of abstractions will leave readers at sea.

Surely, vague, shadowy words are easier to think of. But they often cover up a lack of clear and rigorous thinking. For example, it”s easy to pass judgment on a book by calling it “good” or “interesting.” But what readers should be told is precisely why you think so. How simple to call someone an “old man” without bothering to show the reader a “stooped white-haired gentleman shuffling along the sidewalk.” A student who calls her teacher “ugly” sends a different image of ugliness to each reader. But if the teacher is a “shifty-eyed tyrant who spits when she talks,” then say it. Or if the teacher”s personality is ugly, show her ill-temper, arrogance, and cruelty as she curses her hapless students.

Good writers understand that their words must appeal to a reader”s senses. To write precisely is to write with pictures, sounds, and actions that are as vivid on paper as they are in reality. Exact words leave distinct marks; abstract ones, blurry impressions. As the following pairs of sentences illustrate, precise writers turn hazy notions into vivid images:


Skiing is a fun sport. The mountains are pretty, and it takes skill.


On the ski slope, I marvel at the snow-decked pines and brilliant sky and thrill to the challenge of weaving gracefully down steep mountains.


Rather violently, Carolyn expressed her anger at the other team”s player.


Carolyn snarled, “Get out of my face” as she punched the Tigers” goalie in the nose.


My parents were happy when I got accepted in college.


The letter thrilled my parents. Their worried looks suddenly disappeared, they stopped nagging me about homework, and because the question had been answered, they never again asked what would become of me.

Clearly, the precisely worded sentences are richer than the hazy ones. But they are also much longer. In fact, it”s not always desirable or necessary to define every abstraction with precise details. Each time you mention dinner, for instance, you don”t have to recite the menu. When you use an abstract word in an essay, ask yourself what is more important—to give readers a more detailed account of your idea or to push on to other, more important, matters. Context determines how abstract your essay should be. Just remember that nobody likes reading essays that fail to deal concretely with anything.

Practice in Using Precise Wording

Directions: The next ten sentences desperately need more precise wording. Please provide the verbal antidote to their vagueness.

1. The barn was old and run-down.

2. She did not take it lightly when the accusation was leveled against her.

3. Winning the overwhelming approval of the people gave the candidate great satisfaction.

4. She tried diligently to study, but one could see that it made no difference.

5. The atmosphere at the graduation party was intense.

6. One must do many things to earn a place on the roster of an athletic team.

7. It”s rewarding to visit places where customs are different because unusual customs are always interesting.

8. She met with little success during her high school career.

9. The family was very poor.

10. In a perilous situation, Rod showed that he was brave.