Monday, August 2, 2010

Vocabulary: Expand or Not to Expand?

In one camp sits the belief that it’s not necessary for a writer to expand their vocabulary. It can often lead to stilted writing, it can add an air of pompousness, and it can slow the readers down.

In the other camp sits the belief that it is necessary for a writer to expand their vocabulary. The more words we learn, the more skilled we will be to express ourselves.

In George Orwell’s classic, 1984, the government removed words from the public’s vocabulary in order to remove their ability to think with clarity. “Doubleplusgood” replaced words like “excellent”, “exceptional”, and “brilliant”. “Bad” became “ungood”. This is, of course, an extreme example but it does drive the point home: we need words. So, how far do we go to learn new ones?

My take on the issue: We naturally pick up new words through reading and, as writers, we should be reading a wide range of books anyway. I don’t believe it’s something to stress about. I don’t believe it’s necessary to hunt down new words. When we come back from the hunt with a shiny new gem, we may have a tendency to use the new word for the sake of the new word alone, rather than using it because it’s the right word.

Words interest and fascinate me, but I choose not to use many of the ‘high brow’ ones because it’s just not my writing style. Whenever I throw one in it stands out like a beacon and screams, “Oh, look at me! I’m a big word. Look how smart the author must be to know me!” (exclamation marks ‘n’ all).

Anything that takes away from the story must go. Anything that draws attention to the writer must also go.

If the big words are your thing then they have a place in your prose. A writer friend of mine loves to indulge in lugubrious pontifications. That’s her style and it’s brilliant because she works it well. It’s not my style.

So, what’s your style of writing? Do you love the big words? Do they work for you or do you work for them?

24 comments:

  1. I heard someone once say that writers should 'Use the word you mean, not is second cousin.' And I agree. The right word, be it big or little is the word that best says what you need to say. Sometimes a little word can say more that 100 big words. And sometimes lots of little words trip readers over and would be better replaced with one big word. That's my thinking on it all anyway. :)

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  2. Absolutely, Tabitha. It's about using the right word.

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  3. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
    — Mark Twain

    :)

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  4. Big words are definitely not my style and always seem to sound funny when I try to use them. I do use a thesaurus a lot to find a variety of words, but I shy away from the big ones.

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  5. Meadow - great quote from Mark Twain

    Susan - thesaurus' are a god-send. I love them. I use them more as a trigger for the words on the tip of my tongue (a lot of my words live there).

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  6. ponti-what???
    small word user here!
    :)
    really, it's about finding the right word. this is one of those things in life where size truly doesn't matter.

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  7. Aspiring, you made me laugh, but you are right.

    BTW, I only used the ponti-etc word to demonstrate the way my friend writes. My word doc didn't even know the word and kept screaming at me saying it was misspelled. lol.

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  8. I think a great book is the compilation of X0,000 perfect words, in the perfect order. With no unneccesary words, and no missing words. The perfect word might be long or short, it might have multiple syllables, or only one. If you choose a long complicated word when a short one is the perfect word, then you will have a less than perfect story. Same goes for choosing an easy word, when a more difficult one is the perfect option.

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  9. Hi Lynda..pleased to meet you. Thanks for the follow, I have added myself to your follower's list.

    Whenever I come across a new word, I tuck it into my memory for future use. But I don't just use it at random, but check if its fitting in well in my story/article.

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  10. Melissa, it's true. Finding the perfect word is what matters. We are more able to do that when we learn more words. But using the word because it sounds interesting, or cool, doesn't necessarily make it the perfect word.

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  11. Rachna, Welcome to my blog :)
    That's a good habit. Remember the words, file them away but wait until they are fitting before using them.

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  12. I think you're spot on, Lynda! It has to be whatever is natural for the writer and also a sensitivity to what our reader's need. Our goal is to write in such a way that our reader is immersed into the story. When we throw in big words for the sake of "words" then we risk taking them out. We need to know the readers we're targeting and what works for them.

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  13. Jody, that's exactly right. It's not just our own personal style we need to consider, but also the market we are writing to.

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  14. No, I don't use big words. Not unless it's the only word that fits. You make a really good point here in the blog. Thank you.

    CD

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  15. I should also tell you, I loved your blog on Character Relatability. I blogged about it on Friday. Hope you don't mind.

    CD

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  16. Clarissa, I don't mind at all you using a post of mine. I feel quite honoured. I like the added point you made for mystery writers

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  17. ONe of my writer friends thought my using 'opportune' was showing off. I scratched my head puzzled. To me, it's basic vocabulary.

    Sometimes I come across a word I haven't seen in a long time. Like bludgeon. Then I just have to find a way to use it. :D

    If I'm talking about something really technical, there might be big words. I use a lot of original words because of my genre, so I try not to then gunk it up with words that are not in common useage. But then, some people think 'opportune' is a big word.

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  18. I like your term of "gunking it up". We can't please everyone either but it's still something to keep in mind. Opportune? Really?

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  19. as a literary translator I deal with words a lot, usually more than with the story, and after all my experience I must conclude that great books are not about great words but about great stories. It also goes for sentence structure. Don't overcomplicate your vocabulary, your syntax, your sentences, your grammar ... focus on the story and just make it flow like a river. We translators would have less problems in that way as well ;)))))

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  20. I think there is a middle ground. I think we should always be LEARNING new words, but before we use them in writing, we probably should practice them some--some words morph, or mean different things in different places, so using a bright shiny word in a manuscript often misses the mark, and I think unusual vocabulary should only be used when the context gives some hints, or for an audience that digs that sort of thing.

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  21. Great advice, Dezmond!

    Hart, yes exactly :)

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  22. When I was younger, I loved using big words- it was my way of showing everyone I was smarter and better than they were.
    I still like to use the appropriate word, but when I am in doubt about whether the readership would know the word, I either try to make it clear from the context, or not use it at all.
    Fantastic post, and I am now following you.

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  23. Blogger ate my comment :-(

    It was something to do with liking to use the appropriate word, but if it is not clear from the context what the word it, then using a simpler one.
    Showing off a vocubulary was what I did when I was much younger than my 39 years

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  24. Blogger didn't eat your comment. It went to my moderated comments and waited for me to wake up. I moderate comments 3 days after the post just so they don't get lost :)

    And a big welcome to my blog :)

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