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Thursday, 24 January 2019 12:56

Word Choice

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It's all about word choice.


Recently a friend in Sunday School told our class, "My wife says I'm tight...but I tell her I'm thrifty."  We all laughed.  Why? 


Because they are saying basically the same thing: my friend is very careful with money. However, "tight" is a negative word while "thrifty" is positive.


Or how about this one I heard from Bible teacher Chuck Swindoll:

Solitude is life-giving, but isolation is deadly.


Huh? Since "solitude" means "being alone" and "isolation also means "being alone," what does this sentence mean? Is this a contradiction? Is it saying "Being alone is good, but being alone is bad"? Furthermore, both words even have the same word stem, "sol," which means "one/alone." (As in: "solo" or "solitary.") (Note: the stem "sol" can also mean "sun" as in "solar energy, so one stem can sometimes have more than one meaning.)


This is another great example of WORD CHOICE. Yes, both mean "being alone," but "solitude" is usually positive: it has the sense of pulling away from the busy hubbub of life and finding a quiet place to think and reflect on the deeper things of life. In contrast, "isolation" is almost always negative. It implies being shunned, cut off, cast out, removed from others. When people have a highly contageous disease they may be put in isolation, or an anti-social person lives in isolation by avoiding contact with others.

Sample sentences:

  • Jim is usually so busy with his work and family, he loves to go hunting in the fall for a few precious days of solitude-- just him in the great outdoors.
  • Many men get sick and die within just a couple of years after retiring: it seems the isolation cuts them off from their relationships, sense of meaning, and identity. 



I told the students in my Advanced Writing class that story when we worked on this task in the excellent text book we use, Writing With Skill Level 1, by Susan  Wise Bauer.   


Bauer begins:


Begin by reading carefully through the following description of the great scientist Isaac Newton, drawn partly from the writings of his admirer John Conduitt. John Conduitt married Isaac Newton’s niece Catherine; Newton lived with the couple towards the end of his life. Read with pencil in hand, and mark each word or phrase that seems to be slanted. The first one is done for you. (1)


He always lived in a very handsome generous manner . . . always hospitable, and upon proper occasions gave splendid entertainments. He was generous and charitable without bounds. . . . He had such a meekness and sweetness of temper, that a melancholy story would often draw tears from him. . . . He was blessed with a very happy and vigorous constitution; he was of a middle stature, and rather plump in his latter years; he had . . . a comely and gracious aspect, and a fine head of hair, as white as silver, without any baldness. To the time of his last illness he had the bloom and colour of a young man. . . He retained all his senses and faculties to the end of his life, strong, vigorous and lively. He continued writing and studying many hours every day till the period of his last illness.  (2)



Bauer then asks students to replace the POSITIVE words with NEGATIVE ones. For example, instead of saying Sir Isaac Newton was "generous," say "he wasted money."


This is how a student of mine, a grade 11 young man in Hsinchu, Taiwan rewrote the passage:

He always lived lavishly like a mogul; his wastefulness is breathtaking. Among the worst of things, he has almost no sense of financial management. Oftentimes, he gave away his money with no apparent reason. Such carelessness greatly diminished his character. Also, he is histrionic and overly dramatic-- breaking into tears at the smallest sorrows-- and especially gutless-- undetermined and weak. He is a showoff who is overly obsessed with his looks. He is also a tryhard who lived a life as a recluse.


Spending habits handsome, generous manner, hospitable, charitable without bounds lived lavishly, wastefulness, no sense of financial management
Personality  Meekness, sweetness of temper  spineless, wimpy, overly-emotional, he wore his heart on his sleeve, crybaby, histrionic, overly-dramatic
Energy level blessed with a happy and vigorous constitution too happy, hyperactive, ADHD, fidgety, can't sit still, ants in his pants, driven
Body build rather plump, big-boned, well-nourished  fat, overweight, obese
Hair a fine head of hair, as white as silver, without any baldness an unkempt mop of hair, as white as a ghost
Skin complexion the bloom and colour of a young man, ruddy, healthy glow, tanned flushed, red-faced, feverish
Mental powers  He retained all his senses and faculties to the end of his life, strong, vigorous and lively. Bright, engaged, informed, intelligent, sharp, insightful, focused bookworm, know-it-all, smarty-pants
Work habits  He continued writing and studying many hours every day, diligent, focused, active, productive, fruitful workaholic, all work and no play, driven, doesn't know when to stop, 
??? Can you think of more examples???  



Now that we're all in a good mood, let's take a look at President Trump. Does this description present a POSITIVE or NEGATIVE view? How can you tell?


Essay 1:

There has never been another president like Donald J. Trump. With his overweight, orange body and shock of yellow hair, he looks like the clown he is. He struts with a swagger, showing all his tremendous conceit and narcissism. He obviously has problems with sleep and physical energy, because he always seems crabby and sends out tweets at all hours of the day and night.

His speech and behavior are vile and offensive. His talk is bombastic, divisive, hateful, and self-centered. His words and behavior all send the message: "It's all about me." From his ludicrous denial of Climate Change to all his other outrageous comments, he is obviously a moron. How can someone with such a low IQ be our president? Trump's personal and family life are a shambles: he has been divorced twice and has been caught on tape boasting about taking advantage of women.


His political views are as distasteful as his personal life. His hateful "America First" jabber is jingoistic, nativistic, and reeks of White Supremacy. His reckless trade wars threaten to not only destroy the US economy but have the potential to send the entire world economy into a fireball. However, his hatred of foreign trade makes sense when you realize how he hates all foreigners period. His childish insistence on getting "his wall" at all costs exposes him as a xenophobe and hater of the rich, diverse cultures that we value in America. But his theatrics are not directed at other nations only.  In Washington he has been an absolute wrecking ball. With no sense of decorum, tradition, history or honor, Trump is the proverbial "bull in the china shop," wrecking order and sowing discord and divisiveness with all he says and does. It is questionable if life in Washington will ever return to normal again, after this disaster that is the Trump regime.


And all this brings us to perhaps the worse part of all: Trump's supporters. With such a sterling candidate as Hillary Clinton, how did America place the boorish, backward Trump in the White House instead? The obvious answer must be, his voters are boorish and backward too, so uneducated and unsophisticated to be unable to appreciate Clinton's outstanding virtues but easy prey for Trump's lies and propaganda. Look at the election map: the wealthier, more sophisticated coastal and urban areas voted for Clinton, while the poorer, more rural, less sophisticated regions pulled for Trump. If there is a silver lining, it is that Trump won the ridiculous, outdated Electoral College but lost the popular vote handily. At least there are some smart people left in the USA.

Do you see? This is clearly a negative portrayal of the 45th president.

The essay is organized by these themes:


  • physical appearance & bearing
  • Speech, behavior, intelligence & personal life
  • Political beliefs, views of foreigners, & how he relates to Washington DC
  • His supporters


Now read this passage. How is like Essay 1? How is it different?


Essay 2:

There has never been another president like Donald J. Trump. With his imposing build, tanned complexion, and full head of blond hair, he looks like the leader he is. He has a bold, confident walk that tells all who see him: I am in charge. Even for a man in his 70's, he obviously is full of energy and vitality, as he is always ready to scrap with  those who attack him and he sends out tweets at all hours of the day and night.

His speech and behavior, though clearly unorthodox, are what attract so many to him. Unlike the other "politically-correct" mealy-mouthed politicians of both parties, Trump says what he means and he means what he says. You always know where he stands. His words and behavior all send the message: "I will fight for the forgotten man." Some call him a clown and a moron, but if that is so, why is he so fabulously wealthy and sitting in the White House now? Some point fun at his intellect, but he is clearly a genius. Trump obviously believes in family: even his own children work on his team. Others criticize his personal life, but as the Democrats and media taught us in the Clinton 90's: "personal life is irrelevant; all that matters is getting the job done," and Trump is getting the job done. 


His political views speak to the millions who feel disgusted with "business as usual" America. Instead of always sending out money and jobs to other countries, Trump promotes  "America First."  That is, with all policies and decisions, what will best help the hardworking American families? Take for example his trade policies. For years other countries have taken the US to the cleaners with unfair trade deals. Finally President Trump is putting an end to all that foolishness, and we see the US economy and manufacturing bouncing back.  Some say he hates foreigners, but if that is so, why have two of his wives been foreign women? What many call "his wall" is in fact a common-sense addition to enhance border security and reduce drug and human trafficking.  In addition, his new style are creating positive reforms here at home too. Since so many hardworking Americans are sick and tired of a dysfunctional Washington DC, they loved his promise to "drain the swamp," and he has gone at that job with all the energy and gusto of a wrecking ball. Of course Trump is the proverbial "bull in the china shop."  That is why he was hired! The American people hired him to upset the status quo and make American Great Again. It is questionable if life in Washington will ever return to normal again, after all the positive reforms of the Trump administration.


And all this brings us to perhaps the best part of all: Trump's supporters. With such a deeply flawed candidate as "Crooked Hillary," we can now see how so many voters chose Trump's fresh, "outside the Beltway" message.  Long dismissed as "Flyover Country" by the condescending "coastal elites," the forgotten men and women of America rose up, from Florida to Alaska, to Make America Great Again. People across our great land don't need talking heads in New York or LA to tell them what to think or believe. They can think for themselves.  Thank goodness we have that gift from the wise Founding Fathers, the Electoral College. Hillary ran up huge margins in left-wing California and New York, but our current system guarantees a political voice for smaller states and rural areas.   At least there are some smart people left in the USA.



Do you see the difference? How does WORD CHOICE matter? 


Now let's take it one step further, into the "real world" of daily new reporting.

Here is a February 28, 2019 article from CNN about Pres. Trump's ex-lawyer giving testimony to Congress: This is CNN.

Here is an article from the same date, on the same topic, but with a very different slant. This is Fox.


How are the two articles different? How is the word choice different? How are even the titles different? 




1. Susan Wise Bauer, Writing with Skill Level 1 (Peace Hill Press, 2012), p. 229-230

2. George Godfrey Cunningham, Lives of Eminent and Illustrious Englishmen: From Alfred the Great, Vol. 4 (A. Fullarton & Co., 1833), p. 402.

Read 7782 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 March 2019 16:44
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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