To ensure clarity, some of our most valuable writing skills are ability to organize the message effectively, identify with the reader, avoid unnecessarily long sentences and paragraphs, and use jargon with discretion. But have you ever thought about the need to recognize words that can be ambiguous or misleading?
Here are a few on my radar. Decide if the underlined word strikes you as positive, negative, or neutral.
• Tell me about an attribute you have as an adult you did not have as a child.
• The party affected my mood the rest of the weekend.
• Sue gained a lot of notoriety when she served on City Council.
• Stu made several drastic changes in his time as CFO.
• The vacation made a surprising impact on our family’s dynamics.
See if you agree
• An attribute is simply a characteristic, not necessarily an asset. It’s neutral. Maybe as an adult you are more flexible or too stubborn. They’re both attributes.
• Affect is neutral. The party might have lifted my spirits or put me in a funk. (Often in workplace writing we should change affect to a precise word like improve or reduce or strengthen to make our point clear immediately.)
• Notoriety is negative (as is notorious), so maybe Sue continually created discord. (When we use notoriety as a synonym for a neutral word like fame, we can mislead.)
• Drastic, with synonyms including radical and severe, has negative connotations, which is why phrases like drastic upgrade are odd. But dramatic upgrade works nicely.
• Impact is like affect (and effect). It’s neutral. The reader needs more information to know if the impact on our family has been favorable or unfavorable.