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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

Understanding a Word's Referent in Plain English Writing

A Word's Referent: Each word has what is called a referent, or plural, referents.

Definition: A word's referent is the actual thing which exists apart from the mind and which the word stands for and presents to the mind.

This referent can be specific, concrete, and sharp, such as that black widow spider; your office desk; or your mother's picture.

Or these referents, can be general, abstract, and vague—such as the nation's dedicated conservationists; the principles of sound management; or multiple-use concepts.

Referents usually represent the "core meaning of words," the meaning society generally has agreed on and which is normally spelled out in dictionaries.

However, it's good to remember that people don't have as much trouble keeping up with the words in the dictionaries as dictionaries have in keeping up with the words in people. Some of us forget that people and words existed long before dictionaries, and that dictionaries exist solely because people use, re-use, quit using, throw away, make up and remake words every day. And as they do so they set standards for word usage, style and meaning which it is the job of dictionaries to collect and record. Dictionaries are literally overflowing with definitions people don't use any more, and people are literally overflowing with definitions that dictionaries have not yet recorded.

This same "people came first" is also true for grammar books, heretical as that may sound. The people's language makes the rules for grammar books; the rules in grammar books do not make the people's language. And, like dictionaries, grammar books often lag far behind the people's standards of usage, style, and meaning.

The only difference between dictionaries and grammar books is that dictionaries do not include words people never used, while grammar books do include rules people never did and never will use. That means dictionaries are doing what dictionaries are supposed to do. Not so most grammar books.

We make these "people first" points only because too many pedants would have us believe that dictionaries and grammar books, especially grammar books, were somehow divinely revealed and sent down to us from some sort of Mount Sinai of words.

Mind you, we don't say dictionaries and grammar books are not necessary and shouldn't be used; they are necessary, and we should use them. But they shouldn't be used to frighten people who have to write. Too many of us are "scared stiff" that we don't know enough of what's in dictionaries and grammar books to write well.

This fear, of course, is nonsense. Big words and grammar rules are one thing; writing well is quite another. If you got average grades in an average school, you know enough of the former to learn to do the latter.

A word's referent(s), then, is the actual thing that exists apart from the mind and which the word stands for and presents to the mind. It is usually denned in dictionaries and is sometimes called a word's denotation, which means all that strictly belongs to the word's definition.

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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles