Making Vague Words Specific: Activity for Composition Classes

Examine the two sentences below and decide which version you like better. Why?

It is a way of managing them and getting them down on paper. There is nothing unusual about this, and you can learn to do it well and feel good about it if you try.

Writing is a way of capturing elusive, half-formed ideas, dragging them into the light of day, and herding them onto paper. This process is not alchemy; it is a craft, which can be learned like any other, such as making a bookshelf. If you invest the time and effort, you can learn to write powerfully.

(Wingersky, Joy, Jan Boerner, and Diana Holguin-Balogh. Writing Paragraphs and Essays: Integrating Reading, Writing and Grammar Skills. 6th Ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.)

Making Vague Words Specific

Instructions: Circle the vague words and phrases in the following sentences and replace them with specific wording. Since these sentences lack content, you must make up the subjects. Feel free to add facts and details from your own imagination.

In the world, they think that money means you are better than others.


It is stupid that everyone believes that.


Things are happening to people in today’s society.


In life, everyone likes to express stuff.


You always hurt yourself if you aren’t paying attention when you are doing things in the world.



Common Vague Words

Underline and annotate the following list. Then, replace the vague words:

1. “you,” when it means “everybody,” as in, “You have to work hard to make a living.”

Who exactly? ________________ (has / have) to work hard to make a living.

2. “they,” when it means “somebody,” as in “They raised the price of the medicine.”

Who raised it? _________________ raised the price of the medicine Daraprim.

3. “it,” when the pronoun does not refer to a nearby noun. Good usage: “I bought a new car. It’s a Porsche.” Weak usage: “It is difficult to persuade politicians.”

What is difficult? ____________________________ is difficult.

(Note: This structure is acceptable when the writer wants to emphasize the adjective: “It is urgent that you contact me.”)

4. “this” and “that,” as in “The economy is improving; unemployment is falling; stock prices are rising. This is giving consumers confidence.” What does “this” refer to?

This what? (This / These) __________________ (is / are) giving consumers confidence.

5. “people,” as in “People love Disneyland.” Do you really mean all people, including babies, the elderly, aborigines from Australia, people in comas?

Who exactly? ____________________ (love / loves) Disneyland.

6. “Everything,” “everywhere,” “everyone,” “no one,” and “always.” While these exaggerations are common in informal speech and writing, they are rarely accurate, as in “Everyone always criticizes me.” Make the noun or adverb specific. Add a qualifier like “some,” “more, “most.”

Who exactly? How often? __________________  _________________ criticize(s) me.

7. “in life” and “in the world,” as in “In the world, gay people face severe discrimination.” Readers will assume you are writing about people living on this planet, so these phrases are unnecessary. Cross them out or replace them with a specific phrase.

Where exactly? ________________________, gay people face severe discrimination.

8. “in today’s society and “throughout history,” as in “In today’s society, Democrats and Republicans rarely agree.” Make these cliché phrase more specific or cross them out.

When and where? _____________________, Democrats and Republicans rarely agree.

9. “bad,” “good,” “stupid,” “terrible,” “wonderful,” and other positive or negative adjectives that do not explain why they are good or bad, as in “The movie was bad.”

Replace “bad” with a more specific adjective. The movie was _____________________.

10. “a lot,” as in “Prices of food went up a lot.”

How much exactly did they go up? Prices of food rose _______________________.

11. “tons” should only refer to weight in formal writing, as in “They poured ten tons of cement,” but not “I have tons of problems.” Problems don’t weigh anything!

Use a word related to quantity. I have __________________ problems.

12. “things” and “stuff,” while okay in informal speech and writing, they should not be used in formal writing, as in “The president has a lot of stuff to do today.”

What exactly? The president has ____________________________ to do today.”


Possible answers:

  1. Blue collar workers have to work hard to make a living.
  2. Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of the medicine Daraprim.
  3. Persuading politicians is difficult.
  4. These signs of economic growth are giving consumers more confidence.
  5. Middle age guys with the Peter Pan Syndrome love Disneyland.
  6. My parents frequently criticize me.
  7. In Chechnya, gay people face severe discrimination.
  8. In 21st century America, Republicans and Democrats rarely agree.
  9. The movie was boring.
  10. Prices of food rose 19%.
  11. I have a host of problems.
  12. The president has many urgent tasks to do today.

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