Student Guide: Word Choice

Some African American English rhetorical moves involve first-person pronouns (I, we) and second-person pronouns (you) to establish a relationship with the audience or intersperse personal testimonies into non-narrative assignments:

  • Economic inequity is a major problem in America. I am sure you have seen this in your community.
  • We must work together to fight against this issue.
  • I only recently learned that…

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

Implications for Grading your Writing

Your instructor might not specify the types of pronouns they expect you to use. If that is the case, you can think strategically about whether and how to use first or second person

  • Does the use of I, we, or you in a particular piece of your writing enhance your ability to engage your intended audience? To answer this question, it’s important to know who your audience is: who are you writing to and for (beyond the instructor)? 
  • Does you in your paper refer directly to your audience? Or does you refer to someone unknown and generic? If second-person pronouns refer to your audience, they may help you establish a relationship with that audience. If you refers to someone generic, you might want to replace it with something more specific and direct.
  • Do you think your audience will know who specifically you are referring to when you say we? Are you referring to you and your audience? Are you referring to you and a group of associates or people who belong to a particular group? Or are you referring to someone unnamed and generic? If we refers to someone generic, you might want to replace it with something more specific and direct.
  • Does your use of first or second-person pronouns help you establish your own voice or writing style? Note that voice and style are sometimes included in grading criteria for writing assignments.

In other cases, your instructor might specify the types of pronouns they do or do not expect. They might also correct your use of first or second-person pronouns. If you find that your pronouns have been penalized or corrected, you have the option of using the questions above to determine whether you’d like to advocate for your use of first or second person in your assignment. Another important point to consider is that, contrary to popular belief, academic articles, including and especially in the sciences, frequently use first-person pronouns. Finally, note that different instructors often have different preferences and the ideas of some might contradict those of other instructors. If you keep in mind the questions above, you can make your own writing decisions and discuss them with your instructor. This way, you will use your own voice rather than conform to each professor’s expectations without consideration of your agency as a writer. 

Your instructor might additionally grade based on criteria such as formal or academic word choice. In their feedback, they might label some of your words informal, slang, or colloquial. If this is the case, first, see if you understand why the instructor took off points for or labeled your word choice in this way. If you’re unsure, ask during office hours: “Can you explain what makes this word informal/slang/colloquial?” In addition, think strategically about how your word choice might relate to your voice, your purpose for writing, and the audience that you’d like to write to. If voice, purpose, or audience are part of the grading criteria, you can advocate for your word choice based on these criteria. Here are some examples of things you might say to connect to word choice to other grading criteria. You can adapt them to fit your situation.

  • I understand that this word can be considered colloquial and that academic language was part of the grading checklist. At the same time, I wanted to be successful at reaching my intended audience, since that was also part of the checklist. My intended audience includes speakers of African American English who will be familiar with this word choice and appreciate its use in an academic context.
  • I understand that this phrase is sometimes called slang and that a professional tone was part of the grading criteria. At the same time, I wanted to be successful at the grading criteria on achieving my purpose for writing. My paper’s purpose is to argue for a solution to particular racial injustices. My word choice helps me practice what I preach because it demonstrates linguistic equality by including African American English semantics in professional writing. 
  • I understand that this phrase can be considered informal and that formal word choice was part of the rubric. At the same time, I wanted to be successful at using my own voice, since that was also part of the rubric. My word choice here is part of my language, African American English, which helps me establish my writing voice.

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