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16.5 Techniques for Writing: Using Specific Language

General language describes large categories. Specific language describes small categories or individual things and actions. In the diagram below, notice how the language becomes more specific as your attention moves down the scale from general towards specific.

Exercise A: Identify the most specific word or phrase in each group by clicking on it. Compare your response to the computer's response by clicking the "answer" buttton.
1. hammer | tool | hardware
 
2. gems | diamonds | jewelry
 
3. washing machine | electrical appliance | household convenience
 
4. difficulties of the first year in college | problems in college | overscheduling the first year of college
 
5. buying a car | undertaking a major financial committment | accepting a burden of independent life
 

Writing has to strike a balance between specific and general language. Often a topic sentence uses more general language than the sentences that support the topic sentence:

Topic sentence: The sociable old moviehouse may be a thing of the past.
First supporting sentence: The jokes in the ticket line and the smell of popcorn are no longer able to lure people away from the comforts of the home VCR. . . .

Specific details that refer to the five senses (like the smell of popcorn) convey ideas vividly. The five senses are sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (including motion), and they form the basis for most of our thoughts about the world. If you refer to senses in your writing, you help readers to form an appropriate base on which to build their understanding of the ideas you're discussing. That makes your job of communicating and persuading much easier. Compare these two sentences:

The dean is in a bad mood today.
The dean is mumbling as he brushes past us in the hall and doesn't even nod when we greet him.

The second sentence contains sound, sight, and motion details, and allows readers to come to their own conclusions about the dean's mood.

Exercise B             Exercise C

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