Page 2 Language Arts: Writing Study Guide for the HiSET® Test

Use of Language

Use of language refers to the importance of considering not only what is said or communicated, but also how it is said or communicated. Language is powerful and words carry responsibility. To deliver a clear message, it is crucial to select the appropriate words based on the audience and purpose. A writer’s use of language determines the effectiveness of the communication with the reader.

Word Relationships

It is important to consider word relationships in writing. Because the English language has so many words that mean similar things with very subtle nuances of difference, it is imperative to think about the effect a word will have on a reader. Words can work very effectively with one another to deliver a powerful and cohesive message, but using the wrong words together can bring discord and confusion into writing and make it difficult for a reader to appreciate or understand the message.

Subordination and Coordination

Subordination and coordination refer to two types of conjunctions that can be used to combine sentences in order to add variety to sentence length and structure. Using subordinating and coordinating conjunctions helps keep writing from being a collection of short, choppy, simple sentences and can also help alleviate run-on sentences and comma splices.

Subordinating Conjunctions—Subordinating conjunctions join independent clauses to make complex sentences. Use of these conjunctions shifts the type of clause from independent to dependent, or “subordinate” (hence the “subordinating conjunction which takes the independence away from the clause it is attaching”). Subordinating conjunctions include: after, although, as, as if, because, before, even if, even though, if, if only, rather than, since, that, though, unless, until, when, where, whereas, wherever, whether, which, and while

Coordinating Conjunctions—Coordinating conjunctions are used to join independent clauses together to make compound sentences. Coordinating conjunctions bring independent clauses together, but do not demote either clause the way subordinating conjunctions do. Using coordinating conjunctions preserved the independent integrity of both clauses. Coordinating conjunctions include: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so


Parallelism, or parallel structure, means using the same grammatical pattern within a sentence to show that multiple ideas have the same level of importance. Parallelism creates balanced sentences, as long as the word forms selected remain consistent. For example:

“Harry likes to scuba dive, to walk along the beach, and going fishing.”

This is an imbalanced, non-parallel sentence because the word forms are not consistent. He likes to scuba dive, to walk and…going? Those are not consistent forms. Instead, write:

“Harry likes to scuba dive, to walk along the beach, and to go fishing.” or

“Harry likes scuba diving, walking along the beach, and fishing.”

In these two sentences, the word forms are consistent throughout the sentence, which gives the sentence parallel structure and makes it seem balanced.

Modifier Placement

Modifiers are words that describe or give more information about a word or idea in a sentence. The most common modifiers are adjectives and adverbs, and to work most effectively they should be placed next to the words they modify. When modifiers are misplaced, all sorts of misunderstanding and confusion can take place. Consider this:

“My parents bought a cat for my sister they call Kitten.”

Who or what is called “Kitten”? It’s hard to tell in this sentence. But move the placement of the modifier closer to the word it is meant to describe and things become more clear:

“My parents bought a cat they call Kitten for my sister.”

“Steve wants only water to drink” is a much different sentence than “Only Steve wants water to drink.” In the first sentence, Steve doesn’t want anything else to drink but water. However, in the second sentence, he’s the only one (presumably of a group) who wants water to drink. Placement of modifiers can greatly impact the meaning of a sentence.

Sentence Strategies

Sentence combining should be used to give writing an improved flow. If every sentence is a simple sentence, then writing can seem very staccato and monotonous to the reader. In that case, combining some of the sentences to vary the length will make the reading more interesting. If two sentences are very similar to each other in content or message, then the writing can seem repetitive and the sentences may need to be blended and combined together to create a unified whole. Sentence combining also allows a writer to better illustrate the connections between ideas to make them more clear for the reader. Sentence combining should only be done if it will help clarify content for the reader.

Especially for the Essay—When you are working on brainstorming an outline and determining your framework, it is desirable to use incomplete sentences just to get the ideas down on the page. However, as you write your essay, be sure to develop those ideas into complete sentences. Remember that every sentence in your response must serve a purpose and relate back somehow to your thesis statement. From topic sentences at the beginning of each body paragraph to transition sentences that will move your reader from one idea to the next, sentences are how you are going to communicate your ideas to your readers.


An idiom is a word or phrase that is not intended to be taken literally. Idioms can also refer to the dialect or jargon used by a particular group of people who live in a certain region or who share a common interest, like music, art, or science. Idioms are a type of nonliteral language, but they must be used carefully as they may be too specific for a general audience to understand. Context clues can often aid readers in deciphering unfamiliar idioms.

Here are some examples of idioms:

“Uncle Jack bought the farm last summer.”

This is an idiom for dying and has nothing to do with real estate. Now consider this sentence:

“The crops failed after Farmer Brown jumped the gun and planted early, before the last frost.”

There are no firearms involved in this idiom, rather it means to take action before preparations are complete or to get an advanced start on something before everything is ready. How about this:

“Pat sat down to tickle the ivories.”

This idiom refers to playing the piano (the keys of which used to be made of ivory), but if one is not musical he or she may not understand the reference, which is one of the dangers of using idioms.

Style and Tone

Style refers to the way a writer writes. A writer’s diction, organizational pattern, sentence structure, and use of literary techniques all help to establish style. Style should remain consistent throughout a text; once a writer determines his or her style, he or she tends to be consistent.

Tone refers to the attitude a writer takes with regard to a subject, a character, or the audience. Tone is conveyed through word choice and is often described using adjectives like serious, humorous, sarcastic, critical, and so on. It is the description of how the writer seems to feel with regard to the subject about which he or she is writing. The writer may shift tone in the text, but these shifts are done purposefully and to make a point.

When asked to revise portions of a text in a multiple-choice test, be on the look-out for areas that don’t seem to match the style or tone that has been established in the rest of the text. If one part sticks out and affects the flow, it probably needs some editing for style or tone to help it fit in.

Especially for the Essay—When you are writing an argument essay, be sure to be aware of your style and tone. How do you want to present your argument? What sentence structure and diction is most appropriate for your audience and purpose? Your written response should be an expression of your ideas and argument, presented in a way that is believable.

Your voice should sound authentic to the reader and not like you are pretending to know something that you really don’t. This includes using formal language that does not rely on diction with which you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Argument essays will have an argumentative tone, but must not be belligerent or you risk alienating your readers. Your tone should be strong without being condescending, firm without bullying.

Word Denotation and Use

Denotation is a word’s literal dictionary definition. Many words in English have similar denotation, but their connotations differ greatly. Connotation is the “emotional baggage” a word has for the reader. Some words have a more negative connotation, others a positive connotation, and others are generally neutral. Good writers must ensure that the denotation and connotation of their diction is appropriate to audience and purpose. A variety of words indicates a broad vocabulary and can ensure that the precise word needed is the word used. Consider this example:

“Trevor was insistent as he forced the group to pay attention.”
“Trevor was insistent as he compelled the group to pay attention.”

The word force makes the reader envision someone with a whip and chain, while compelled presents a less violent picture of events.

Especially for the Essay—In an argument essay, diction is especially important. In a timed essay response, word choice becomes even more critical because every word counts and you don’t have time to brainstorm lists of synonyms. Choose words that will clearly communicate your ideas to the reader. It’s not impressive to use “big words” if they are not the right words or not used in the right way. It is more important to be clear and concise. Argument essays are intended to persuade the reader, but avoid confronting them directly. Do not use second-person references such as you; that makes assumptions about your reader which may not be true and may undermine your argument. Consider this example:

“You like to think this is not a problem.”

As the writer, you may not know that. Maybe the readers do like to think it is a problem and they were on your side until you insulted them. Instead, stick to the more neutral third-person one or people.