Instructor Guide: Word Choice

Some African American English rhetorical moves involve first- and second-person pronouns to establish a relationship with the audience or intersperse narratives into non-narrative assignments. Again, many African American students aim to make their writing engaging to their intended audience. These are rhetorical moves that, as writing instructors, we want to encourage rather than discourage.

Beyond pronoun choice, word choice in student writing may include a host of African American English lexical features, which Smitherman calls Black Semantics. Here are some examples from college writing students:

How to Respond to Word Choice

Ask questions that guide students to make strategic linguistic choices:

What does your use of ‘I’ do to your argument? How might it strengthen it for some audiences? How might it weaken it for some audiences?”

These questions emphasize linguistic flexibility, rather than conformity and correction, as a priority of writing. As such, it may align with your own goals to teach students how to adapt their writing based on the rhetorical situation.

Here’s an example of a response to pronoun usage that emphasizes strategic choices:

Does your use of you help bring your audience into your writing or include them in your purpose? Or, does you here refer to someone other than the audience; if so, who?

These questions can help the student writer think about how to engage the audience through “inclusive lexical terms” like you or we. The last question also points to the notion that sometimes these pronouns do not actually refer to the audience and may be helpful to clarify.

How Not to Respond to Word Choice

Corrections of first- and second-person pronouns can preclude value for particular African American English rhetorical moves. Such corrections may give students the false impression that academic writers rarely use these pronouns, which is not the case.

The following examples make or suggest corrections without explaining to students how these corrections might impact different purposes or arguments (italics indicates student writing; strike-throughs and non-italics are written by the instructor):

  • we his fans
  • you delete
  • delete “I” from all academic writing

In one study, instructors corrected or commented on almost all instances of first and second-person. Such blanket correction can serve to privilege Standard English rhetorical patterns over African American English rhetorical patterns and can obscure any class discussions about strategic word choice.

It is also not helpful to label students’ word choices with labels such as:

  • Informal
  • Unclear 
  • Confusing
  • Slang
  • Casual 

These terms can demean African American English and may also leave the student unsure as to how and why to revise. Receiving comments like this, in response to using his own written language, led one writing student to question, “So what type of voice we expected to have in writing classes?” (Hankerson, 2017, p. 38).

See Sample Papers with Feedback for more examples of how to respond and how not to respond.

Next Page: Grammar Patterns