The Words We Choose Make A Difference

Michael Shook
May 21, 2019 · 3 min read

Clarity counts

Image courtesy of Stevepb via Pixabay

I’ve been reminded of the idea of clarity many times over the past few days. I learned to pick my words carefully when I was teaching. Before that time, I was not so careful to only write or say what I meant.

I spent most of my teaching career working with students who spoke English as their second (and in some cases third) language. I quickly realized that the words I used in both spoken and written communication made a significant difference in shared understanding.

Anyone who has learned a second language in a school setting knows that before you become fluent, you spend some time translating from the new language into your first language.

This is a perfectly reasonable way of learning and is a way of creating new meaning using what you already know as a scaffold for further understanding.

But the process takes time; so a student doing this internal translation takes longer to create meaning and respond than a student who is not translating in their heads.

Here’s an oral language example.

When a teacher gives instructions for answering an oral question, there is a big difference between saying:

“Raise your hand if you know the answer.”


“When you know the answer, raise your hand.”

Students who are translating in their heads, raise their hands to answer as soon as they have translated the first phrase. They think that’s what the teacher wants them to do. They raise their hands without knowing the answer to the question.

Then they are often chastised by the teacher for raising their hand without knowing the answer to the question. When that happens, understanding goes out the window. If you want to elicit a particular response to a question, word order is vital. Otherwise, miscommunication becomes the order of the day.

Here’s an example in written language.

Elementary Math worksheets are notorious for having poorly written directions. Sometimes the directions are written to deliberately confuse the reader. Sometimes the directions are written using words the student cannot read.

The goal of using these worksheets is usually for the student to figure out the right answer to math problems. But when the directions are written so that the student spends their time and brain energy deciphering the instructions instead of figuring out the answer, the number of correct answers goes down.

Writing online poses similar issues

I’m not talking here about serial commas or typos, but in the understanding our readers create for themselves based on our writing.

Recently, I wrote a Medium story which elicited some emotion filled responses. Some of the responses were convivial and led to wonderful, written conversations.

Some of the responses were not so convivial. Those responses were along the lines of me not knowing what I was talking about or what a poorly written story I had published.

In the world of online writing, there is a big difference between someone saying,

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“I don’t agree with what you say; here’s what I think.”

It’s hard sometimes to interpret what people mean when they write with emotion. But we need emotion in our writing. Emotion is vital to make our meaning clear.

If we want to tell another person what is on our mind and our heart, it makes sense to write in a way that helps the reader understand what we mean.

Everyone interprets meaning through their own filters. We can never be completely sure that what they understand is what we meant to say, but it’s important to write as clearly as we can.

It helps to be kind when writing, especially with emotional topics. There are lots of people who don’t seem to think this way based on how they write. But the internet is a big place, and there’s room for lots of viewpoints and opinions.

When we write about tough issues with emotions and strong words, clarity is vital for communication. Clarity creates better writing, better reading, and better understanding. And that’s what published writing is all about.


How to be your best self.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store