Not so fast. This post could help you write better, so that whatever you compose at work or school is crisp, clear, clean, and accurate, making you the Doyen(ne) of Diction, the Wizard of Word Choice, the Viceroy of Verbs. Let me show you what I mean:
You can go to the fair.
You may go to the fair.
You should go to the fair.
Three identical sentences, but when you swap out the verbs, the meaning changes. “You can go to the fair” gives you casual permission to attend. Or it means you are capable of going—you have a car, right? (We could get into emphasis—YOU can go to the fair but I’ve got to stay home and milk the cows; You can GO to the fair but you won’t like it; you can go to the FAIR, but not to the rodeo—but let’s keep it simple for now.)
“You may go to the fair” is more formal. It’s parental-type permission: you’ve made a request, your request has been considered and weighed against your faithfulness in performing your appointed tasks along with your avoidance of transgressions, and you have been found worthy of receiving Fair Attendance Permission.
“You should go to the fair” is advice. Feeling sad? You should go to the fair, eat a couple corn dogs, ride the Ferris wheel--come on, snap out of it! Or the verb “should” is a recommendation by someone who’s already been there: you should go to the fair because they’ve got a primate exhibit with an actual live Silverback gorilla who signs “Get me outa here” in ASL.
Plug in other verbs—must, might, will—and see how the meaning changes yet again. Add the adverb “not” and change it up yet again.
What’s going on here is diction, which is the choice and use of words in speaking or writing. Diction demonstrates how you were educated and whether you listened in class. It shows how you think. Diction shows whether you’re a hothead whose imprecise communiques full of errors embarrass management or a cool, careful communicator who thinks before you speak or write and therefore can be trusted to represent the company on a junket to Taiwan. Choosing the best word makes you a better employee.
You think I’m joking? Not at all. Employers say effective communication is the number one skill they want to see in employees.
According to Us New and World Report/Money, 98 percent of employers surveyed said they consider communication skills to be essential. Kimberly Palmer adds in her article that Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, defines communication skills as “the ability to write, compose emails, give presentations in front of others, and being able to have conversations with those across generations.” The National Association of Colleges and Employers rates “Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization” as the number one skill employers seek in job candidates. Also in the top 10: Ability to create and/or edit written reports. Both of those skills entail word choice.
Doctors Katharine and Randall Hansen of Quintessential Careers say “the one skill mentioned most often by employers is the ability to listen, write, and speak effectively” and suggest a job-seeker highlight this skill on his or her resume by saying something like “Exceptional listener and communicator who effectively conveys information verbally and in writing.”
But if you say you're an exceptional communicator and it isn’t true, you will be found out, my friend, and you will be despised, shamed, and forbidden from going on the junket to Taiwan, if you ever get out of the office pool in the first place. Don’t say you can “convey ideas effectively” if you can’t, but don’t despair either. Although language is acquired over a lifetime, you can start improving your diction right now.
First, start using a thesaurus. Most computers have one built in to their editing programs, but I recommend buying a paperback thesaurus, a little one that you keep at your desk or in your backpack. Consult it regularly, even if you elect not to use any of the synonyms it lists for the initial word you chose. Why a hard copy? Because a hard copy on your desk shows the world that you care about language; because its innards may-can-should offer tangible evidence in your communications that you, my friend, are the go-to wordsmith of your organization; but most importantly, because seeing the cover will remind you to Stop and Think and Peruse before you hit Send. So buy a copy and keep it close. Go ahead—wear your heart on your sleeve. Your desk. Whatever. As a new convert to Thesaurusism, your writing may be excessively verbose or wordy at first, but pretty soon you'll throttle down to a more manageable groove.
A second way to boost your ability to use language effectively is to start reading. Turn off the TV, the computer, the video game. Read for twenty minutes to start, so you don’t get twitchy. Read on the subway instead of listening to your music—or in addition to it. Read just before bed. Listen to a book on tape on your commute or your daily run. There are plenty of ways to get words into your life, and the payoff is astonishing.
Lifehack says reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body, and among the ten benefits it suggests reading can bring to your life is vocabulary expansion, which aids word choice. (Lana Winter-Hebert also says reading improves your focus, makes you more analytical, and reduces stress. Those are decent rewards for an activity that doesn’t have to cost you a dime and can be done anywhere, anytime.)
These two little things—reading regularly and using a thesaurus--will improve your ability to communicate in less than a year. If they don’t, I can-may-should eat my hat.
But I probably won't. That would be silly.