Word choice

Why do writers use some words and not others? This lesson looks at word choice options, both grammatical and semantic.


  • Explore possible word choices for some example sentences.
  • Identify the grammatical restrictions on word choice in particular examples.
  • Identify the semantic restrictions on word choice in particular examples.

Lesson Plan

In this resource we will have a look at some examples of different writers’ work and think about some of the reasons why particular words might have been chosen. To do this we will think about some of the choices available to writers and some of the grammatical patterns that have an impact on those choices.

Activity 1 can be found in the menu entitled 'This Unit' on the upper right part of this page, and can be displayed on a projector or smart board. This activity walks you through a discussion of three example sentences, reproduced below. Students should first think about what words might go in each slot. Their knowledge of the world and society, and of word meaning, as well as their implicit knowledge of grammar, will all influence their decisions.

  • She
  • After
  • The

Whatever word they have used to fill each gap, there will be grammatical limitations on what will work, as well as limitations connected to meaning and what is normal in our society.

The next slides explore what is acceptable grammatically and semantically. Go over these slides before class and then use them to walk through the key points with your students.

In Activity 2, also accessible in the right hand menu, students are presented with two text extracts and asked how the writer may have chosen his or her words. The extracts appear below, and on the activity slides.

My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head. But I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life.

From Michael Morpurgo, Warhorse

What you might have noticed with this extract is that the author uses a mixture of adjectives, abstract nouns and verbs to precisely paint a very visual picture of his narrator’s memories. The use of the adjectives hillydark, and damp as part of two noun phrases helps describe the scene clearly, while the use of the superlative adjective earliest shows us that this is the first memory the narrator has. Could nouns have replaced these adjectives? Verbs? How about hilliest or darkest instead of hilly and dark? The verb scampered is effective, because it captures the movement of the rats, while two abstract nouns, confusion and terror, convey the central feelings related to the memories. Could adjectives or adverbs have replaced those nouns?

An exceptionally funny and generous book that is also a tightly plotted detective novel.

From Louis Sachar, Holes

In this extract, the positive impression is created by adjectives and adverbs. The book is described using the adjectives funny and generous, while they are modified by the adverb exceptionally. Another adverb, tightly, is used to modify the adjective plotted in the noun phrase a tightly plotted detective novel. What other words could the writer have chosen? What other word classes could the writer have chosen?


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