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`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Words have meaning. We all know that, but sometimes like Humpty Dumpty college students think they can use words without taking into account the actual meaning of those words.  Student writers often forget that on the other side of those words, a real reader (a faculty member grading their papers) is reading and struggling to understand words that have been misused.

First-year students, especially, try to fit into the college experience both socially and academically. In their writing, they use words they think the faculty want to read, words they hope will make them seem part of the academic community. Too often, they have, at best, only a half-knowledge of the meaning of these words. When students use words they have not mastered, the end result is confusion and miscommunication, and we write the dreaded word, “Diction” in the margin.

Frequently, when I discuss their papers with my students, I hear myself asking, “Would you actually ever say this word in any conversation with anyone?” If the answer is no, I suggest they find a word they feel more comfortable using.   Often when I ask students what they think a misused word means, they shrug or laugh self-consciously. Sometimes I even get an honest, “I don’t know,” or “No idea.”

I encourage my students to convey their ideas in the words they have mastered. As they read more and absorb more, they naturally will grow into a wider vocabulary, and they will become comfortable in the language of academic discourse. Along the way, I ask them to treat their words and their readers with honesty and respect.

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