How to Use General Words in Plain English Writing
: General words name whole groups of things:
people ... structures ... programs ... animals ... machines ... devices ... clothing ... mountains ... directives ... etc.
These general words are usually hard for the reader's mind to handle, since broad categories, unlimited numbers, and wide-sweeping termslike spilled jigsaw puzzlesseldom give a clear, unified picture of the one or the few things they're supposed to represent.
These general words usually contain such a mass of meaning that the reader's mind simply can't sift through it all; the reader is unable to focus on the one particular meaning that needs to know.
General terms have degrees of generality; they can spread out horizontally like flood waters in a long, low valley. See, for instance, how the general term, "soil surface disturbances
," spreads out: The writer meant it to mean "ditching on the contour
," but it meant such things to different readers, such as the following:
"an earthworm network" ... "prairie-dog town" ... "dance of a dust devil" ... "gully wash" ... "rock slide" ... "mud slide" ... "ice flow" ... "atomic explosion" ... "earthquake" ... "birth of a mountain range" ... "end of the world" ... etc.
Which of these is not a "soil surface disturbance?" They all are, of course. So, when our writer chose such a term to describe "ditching on the
," he was playing it cool. The words not only meant what he meant, they meant a million things he didn't mean. That is why general words, even though they are easy for the writer to find and use, seldom give the reader a particular picture of any one thing.
General words can also spread verticallycarrying the individual thing up through groups, families, species, genus, classes, all the way to the kingdom at the top. Each time an individual thing is absorbed in the definition of a higher group, the individual thing loses more of its individual marks and becomes
harder and harder for the reader's mind to find.
See what can happen to Rancher Richard's prize Angus bull, Gargoyle. He is first absorbed by the more general term, herd of Angus
, where he becomes harder to find; then he and the whole herd are absorbed by the next more general term, cattle
, where he is harder yet to find; then they all are absorbed in the next more general term, ruminant
. Of course, our Angus bull. Gargoyle, is still included in the general term, ruminant
, but so are millions of other mammals. So again, it's hard for the reader to sift old
Gargoyle out of all that animal massand that's no bull; it's simply the way with general words.
See what happens in your own mind when you read these general terms; see what specific, particular image and meaning you get from them; see what specific referents and references the words call up in you:
All of the many available small tracts are generally similar in having irregular topography, sparse vegetative cover, and light to medium timber stands.
No doubt you can get almost any mental image and meaning you want to from these general words, for they do indeed contain images, meanings, and possible meanings by the hundreds. But it's just as true you can't construct from these general
small-tract words a clear, distinct, vivid, visible image of any one of the "many available small tracts."
This same thing happens when you generalize with such terms as "large crowds," "suitable structures," "bureau responsibilities," "impressive ceremonies," etc. These terms contain, in a vague, far-off way, your particular meaning and image; but they also contain just about any possible meaning that your reader needs to give them. He sees so many possible meanings in your general words, he has to guess at the one meaning you probably meant to give him. And when a reader goes to
guessing, the writer's in a dangerous word-game.
You'll naturally have to use general words in your writing, but when your writing gets too heavy with them, it gets dull and dies; it tires and bores your reader. Your general words simply include too much for him.