Precision in language

Smiley FaceBuilding your vocabulary is important not just for getting good scores on exams like the TOEFL and IELTS but also for expressing yourself clearly.  The more choices you have, the more precisely you can communicate.

For example, a low-level English speaker might say to me: “I feel bad.”  While I’m sad for him, the simple adjective “bad” doesn’t give me much information.  Bad, how?  Is the person ill?  Is he depressed?  Is he embarrassed?  Is he ashamed or regretful?  Similarly, if he says, “I feel sad,” he might mean “I’m depressed,” “I’m homesick,” “I’m nostalgic,” or “I’m grieving.”  My reaction will differ depending on the situation.

The more precision you can use, the more clearly your listener or reader can understand what you are trying to say.

Let’s look at another example.  If I say, “I see a house,” you won’t know what type of structure to picture.  Is it a small bungalow like you see in Portland?  Is it a big suburban McMansion?  Is it a classical brick house like those you might see on the east coast?  Is it a shack like you might see along the road in a poor, rural area?  Is it painted brown, red, black?  Is it well-kept or run-down?  Does it have a garden or a yard?  To help me picture the house accurately, you must tell me something about its style, material, color, and size.

How would you describe these houses?

Abandoned House Old and Vacant House
Two-storey house with gabled roof Newly painted tiny, green house

Look at the following paragraph taken from the essay “My Ghost Town:  A Vanishing Personal History,” by Jenny Attiyeh.

Today, Grafton as I knew it is dying.  There are no windows left in the old brick house, and the walls are scarred with graffiti.  On the mantelpiece it reads, “Albert Loves Rhonda for eternity and Mike.”  Deep cracks in the walls have encouraged passers-by to help themselves to the fired bricks.  And down by the river, another empty house gapes, its front porch torn off by vandals.  With its supports removed, the second story wall collapsed soon after, exposing the adobe bricks to the melting rain.

The precision of Attiyeh’s details helps you imagine what she is looking at much more than just writing, “The town looked bad” or “The town looked run down.”

For practice, take each of the statements below and clarify them by adding details.  Feel free to write more than one sentence to do this.  I have added some questions to example #1 for you to think about to jump start your imagination.

  1. The person was old. (Is the person a man or a woman?  How do you know the person was old?  What about their hair, skin, body showed his/her age?  Was s/he doing something in particular that you associate with old people?)
  1. The view was lovely.
  1. The exam was difficult.
  1. The hotel was luxurious.
  1. The landscape made me feel sad.

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