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Read about the importance and power of vocabulary and voice in this article.
© University of Southern Queensland

Voice is a component of style because it is how you present yourself to the reader and how your personality is captured in your communication.

Each of us have a voice, but some are stronger than others, and similarly, some are more purposeful than others. What is important about voice in professional communication is making sure you think about how your writing will be received by the audience, as audiences will hear your voice and construct your identity based on that. A large part of this can be your vocabulary, as vocabulary can show the audience a lot about who you are, what experiences you have, and your mood.

There are 171,146 current words in the English language, and an average person will actively use about 20,000 words, which is only 12% (Sagar-Fenton & McNeill, 2018). This is interesting because everyone’s 20,000 words are completely unique, and this variety in word choice contributes to the individuality of voices.

Look at two below sentences as an example.

Vocabulary example

These two sentences mean the exact same thing, but the word choices show a difference in voice. For example, from this we could say person one is more likely to be American, and person two is more likely to be Australian. This is because of the choice between patio and veranda. There are many words like this that can clearly differentiate American English speakers from British/Australian English speakers, including pepper/capsicum, I think/I reckon, and shopping mall/centre. This is a very obvious example of how word choice reveals the writer’s identity.

Another way word choices build identity is in greetings, how to ask someone how they are, and how to say goodbye. Each of these greetings has multiple options, but a person will choose one based on their mood, preferences, and even where they grew up.

The way you write can convey who you are, what you believe in, and how you feel about the recipient of the text. This is because your words and the way you structure them is a product of your experience. Therefore, it is important to choose vocabulary that serves your purpose and conveys the right identity and mood. For example, the word choice of “as per my last email” has a societal connotation meaning “I already told you that”. Even though the words themselves are harmless, they have a voice and meaning behind them, and you can use these connotations to control how your reader perceives your email. When writing phrases or using certain words, think about how you would perceive them if you were on the receiving end.

An easy example is the opening and closing of emails. How would you perceive someone who wrote “Good morning, Katie” and “Kind regards, Chad” versus someone who wrote “Hi Katie” and “Cheers, Chad”. They are both polite and acceptable, but the vocabulary choices create different characters and voices.

“One key factor that determines excellent writing style is how well your choice of words matches your readers’ expectations, and that depends on who those readers are.” (Petelin, 2016, p. 37).

Another important consideration of vocabulary is to keep it simple. Some people try to add complex words to make them sound more intelligent, but since the average person’s vocabulary is 12% of English words, using words outside of this may actually alienate or confuse your reader. Even if the reader knows what it means, they may still be offput by it if there is an everyday word that is a suitable replacement.

For example, take the word “imprimatur”. It simply means “official approval”, but imagine if you received an email that said, “We need the CEO’s imprimatur before proceeding” as opposed to “We need the CEO’s approval before proceeding.” It would be jarring and distracting from the message.

In general, always choose words wisely, aim to use common words, and do not pack your sentences with big words without purpose.

To build your voice further, you can choose whether to be active or passive, which you learned about in the sentence structure step. If you want to be more direct and clear, use the active voice, but if you want to highlight the person or object that experiences an action rather than who/what performs the action, passive voice may be more effective.

For example, if you were requesting someone to complete a report for you, it might be too abrupt to use the active voice, as this would say, “Rachel needs to complete the report for the data team.” Using passive voice will re-order the subject and object to soften the request: “The data team needs Rachel to complete the report.”

Therefore, you want to use voice to ensure the identity you are presenting to the reader is a positive and professional one. This is created by what we have discussed throughout the course, but especially in word choice and structure. The email you send to your boss should be different to the one you send to your peers and different again to a message you would send to your friends, and this is because your voice and tone change to suit the context.

Overall, when considering your writing voice, it is helpful to visualise your audience and anticipate how they will receive the message.

For example, imagine how you would perceive this message if it were on the office wall:

“You must not leave the door open.”

How does it make you feel? Is there a positive or negative association with the writer?

What about if instead it said this:

“The door must not be left open.”

Do you have a more neutral feeling when you read this?

The second message is more positive for the reader because it is written in the passive voice and doesn’t directly address the reader. This gives it a neutral feeling, because while the readers know the door must not be left open, it is not as direct.

Sagar-Fenton, Beth and McNeill, Lizzy. (2018). “How many words do you need to speak a language?” BBC. Retrieved 27/04/2022 from:
Petelin, Rosylyn. (2016). How writing works. Allen and Unwin.
© University of Southern Queensland
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