Introduction to Appropriate Language


Word choice affects the way readers respond to your ideas. Choosing appropriate language is critical for getting readers to take your writing seriously.

Appropriate language uses the right tone, is respectful, and is fresh. Now, this list might confuse you if you read fresh as meaning flirtatious: “Don’t you get fresh with me!” In the context of this list about appropriate language use, fresh means new as in breath of fresh air.

This potential mix-up about the word fresh is a good example of why word choice matters. Make sure that your words will be understood by your audience the way you intend them to be understood. Using appropriate language requires the following strategies:


This video provides many examples of what to avoid in order to use appropriate language in your writing.

Download transcript.


Using appropriate language requires making good decisions about how what you write will sound to readers given the writing situation.

The first guideline is to use the right tone. Tone conveys formality and emotion. For example, the tone of a letter of complaint to a hotel chain is formal and frustrated, but an e-mail to a friend about a conflict at work is informal and furious. Because there’s such a range of formality and emotion, you need to make sure that readers will expect the level of formality and the kind of emotion you are using. In general, avoiding slang and misleading comments will help you set a good tone. If you aren’t sure how formal readers will expect your writing to be, assume that they expect you to be formal; as with business lunches and dinner dates, it’s better to be over-dressed than underdressed. Using the right tone respects readers’ expectations for formality and emotion.

The second guideline is to use respectful language. Your words should acknowledge that all people deserve dignity, that they are worthy of honor and respect. In academic writing, you will have to make generalizations, but word them carefully to avoid being biased or unfair in your assessment. Choose words and labels that aren’t likely offend. For example, you might find college kid insulting, and you might prefer to be called a college student. Give the same nod of respect to other groups and individuals when you describe them. This guideline also matters when you are discussing topics that apply to both males and females. Be careful not to use the masculine forms (man, he) or the feminine forms (women, she) to represent everyone. Using respectful language affirms others’ lives.

The third guideline is to use fresh language. From the overview, you learned that fresh is a vague term that could be mistaken as meaning flirtatious. You also learned from the overview that this guideline means language that works like a breath of fresh air. Breath of fresh air, however, is a cliché, which is an expression readers have trouble understanding because it is used so often that its meaning is vague. Using clichés adds words but not clear meaning to your writing. In fact, wordiness and redundancy keeps your writing from being crisp too. (Did you notice how the word fresh has been revised?) As a writer, make every word count; your essay’s word count should match its idea count so readers don’t get bored. Using crisp language respects readers’ attention.


The study pages explain the strategies for using appropriate language.

As you read through the study pages and then practice with LearningCurve, look for ways writers use the right tone, show respect, and express clear ideas succinctly.

Noticing word choice will help you identify and correct errors in appropriate language on the post-test (if assigned) and in your own writing.

Don’t forget to work smartly!