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Are Content Words Important in Writing?

by Jackson B

Content words, also known as “content words,” are those words that contribute to the overall meaning of a sentence and have meaning independent of the word they are used with. An excellent example of a content word is the word “life.” As you know, life is a very large and important concept, and it cannot be defined in only words.

However, words like these, “life” and “Lifetime” do not have any content words in them. They simply describe a very large concept, and this concept can be described in different ways depending on who uses them. If you were to use these two examples at the start of a sentence, the first sentence would be a clear instance of content. The second sentence, however, is not. It would be an improper choice for most English speakers to use the phrase without defining it first.

As an instructor of composition, I often hear phrases like, “forget the definition, write what you feel.” This is not a bad idea for spoken language, where listeners are free to substitute their own interpretations for the author’s. But it can lead to problems when writing, where content words may be used to replace more formal words such as “meaning.”

Consider this example. Mary goes shopping. She finds a coat she loves, and the label says it is the coats made especially for her. The next sentence tells us that Mary’s friend also wears coats made just for her, but it does not have any content words indicating that it is a coat specifically made for Mary. It simply has the content words “for her” and “just for her.”

Even though I am not a big fan of arbitrary content words, I recognize that some students are good at coming up with creative combinations. So I often give points for creativity, even when there is no clear connection between content words and the meaning of a sentence. After all, Mary is a caring and compassionate person who wears a beautiful coat. Why would she need a reason to wear it?

Sometimes I remind my students that they do have to choose words carefully. An essay must be written in a style that would be appropriate for a formal paper. Students who skip the formatting rules can encounter a lot of “free flowing” writing that ends up sounding insincere or lacking in meaning. The point is to show your intelligence, not to provide a fancy vocabulary.

Students who use proper grammar do not sound unprofessional, but they also do not come across as lazy. When I tell students to write the first sentence of an essay without using any content words, it often prompts them to think about why they chose that sentence in the first place. They may have intended to say something like, “John Doe is a mechanic who works on automobiles.” But if they had used the word” Mechanics” in the first sentence, John could have been left-out, and the writer would not have been accused of grammatically misreading the student’s paper. Using content words after the verb will make certain points more obvious to readers.

The truth is that many English writing teachers are unfamiliar with the content-based approach to essay writing, even though they often teach it. Most teachers seem to believe that you can throw together a sentence consisting of no matter how many content words it contains and call it an essay. That may be true in some cases, but the best-written essays are written with the conscious knowledge that each sentence carries its own set of meaning. A truly good essay consists of several well-crafted sentences that communicate clearly and with great appeal to the reader.

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