Friday, July 27, 2012

Drop that polysyllable!

Source: The Onion
Last year The Onion referenced a new "feature" in Microsoft Word: a squiggly blue line which alerts the writer when a word is "too advanced for a mainstream audience."

Okay, so the squiggly-line thing was just an Onion joke. But I think writers actually do feel pressure to choose simple words to avoid alienating readers.

Here's an example: A few months ago, after reading my manuscript to my writer's group, I got a quizzical reaction to the word "fortnight."  No one knew what it meant (a unit of time equal to 14 days.)

Our group is made up of well-educated, professional people, so I was stunned that no one had heard of the word. Granted, fortnight is primarily used in Britain and the Commonwealth countries, rarely in the US. But still.

Grudgingly, I rewrote the line to use "two weeks" instead of fortnight. But the new version seemed flat. So I changed it back. (And anyway, my character has a British boyfriend, so there!)

I don't intentionally reach for "big" words to impress people. I select words for precision and rhythm. The best backhanded compliment I ever got was when a manager said, "You use big words, but unlike most people, you sound like you know what they mean." Uh, yes.

The first external pressure I got about vocabulary took place when I was writing Nancy Drews. The writers were discouraged from using words that might lose the young readers. I think that's a mistake. When I was reading Nancy Drews at age ten, one of my biggest joys was to discover new words. To check the kinds of words I looked up back then, I went back to my ancient copies of ND; I found the word "portend" on the jacket copy of one book. Portend! What are the odds that portend would make it into contemporary versions? Nada much.

Gradually over the years, vocabulary-stretching seems to have become less popular. If the "mainstream audience" doesn't know a term, the thinking goes, it must be a reader turnoff. Some writers self-police by avoiding the unfamiliar.

Maybe this trend will go away with the advent of ereaders with built-in dictionaries. Or maybe there's no trend, and I'm off base. So tell me: Do you feel pressure to rein in your vocabulary in your writing? Do you shy away from using a perfect word because you fear you might lose a reader?


  1. I figure that's why we have dictionaries. It has never hurt a reader to learn a new word.

    And are you serious? They didn't know what a fortnight is? What in the world has happened to the education system?

  2. Timothy, I was gobsmacked. That plus a few other instances really made me question what's up with basic vocabulary these days.

  3. Uh, what does "gobsmacked" mean? Seriously, there is no reason for any author to rein in their vocabulary. There are dictionary apps for smart phones, they are built into e-book readers, they're online...

    Kathryn, would I be correct in assuming that you had substantially completed at least your primary education before 1980? And that the members of your writing group who did not recognize the word "fortnight" completed theirs at some point after that year?

  4. A superlative rumination on the stultifying anti-suasability of grandiloquent verbosity. Thanks, Kathryn.

  5. Most of the big fancy words I've used turned out to just be typos.

  6. Oh, Joe, I am soooo with you, buddy.

    I don't worry about stretching a reader's vocabulary if it comes up in my story with a particular character. In YA, it's been a challenge to imagine the age appropriate experiences & dialogue, but teen readers look stuff up if they are curious. I don't feel the need to avoid words. They get it.

    Fun post, Kathryn. Thank you for the chuckle. I haven't laughed so hard in a fortnight. And gobsmacked always sounds like something better left to dry on a sidewalk. Just sayin'.

  7. Sheesh. The word fortnight comes up a fair amount in different reading. And even if you don't read but have watched just a LITTLE Wimbledon coverage, you'd still know what it means.

    Reining in vocabulary is a terrible idea. I work with teens and I'm not being critical, but honest, when I say their reading comprehension and language skills (with some exceptions of course) are lower than teens being schooled 20-30 years ago. I am astonished at the very basic words they do not grasp.

    And if it is that way with current teens, then I am not at all surprised to see such lack of comprehension in younger adults.

    On the other hand, very very rarely will I come across a novel that uses TONS of ten dollar words. I've got no problems going to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word. But when the author does it repetitively, and they don't write in such a way that you can figure it out in context, then there is a big disconnect with the reader.

  8. Seriously though, I just re-read THE GREAT GATSBY. I think it's an excellent novel, but I think Fitzgerald too often succumbs to the temptation to use a "too fancy" word, not the kind of word Nick, the narrator, would use, IMO. I believe Hemingway used to chide Fitzgerald for this tendency. But then again, Hemingway was always chiding somebody.

  9. I use the perfect word in the hope of gaining a new reader. As long as the word fits the character or the tone/style/voice of the story, I see no reason to dumb it down for a mass audience. We as writers should try to elevate language to its noblest cause--to clearly and exactly express our thoughts.

  10. School is VERY different in philosophy these days. They don't teach spelling as a subject anymore because word processors have "spell check".

    It baffles me. There making are kids stupid bye not teaching them properly. I hate to here that we must dumb down our vocabulary two. That's just ridiculous.

  11. Joe H., you are right about the graduation vintage! Two people in my group are older than Yours Truly, one is substantially younger, and two others are about the same. So I can't blame. It seems to go across the spectrum!

  12. Jordan, you're right--the gobsmacked do tend to leave a mess behind, lol!

    1. I'm waiting for Jim or Basil to give us the origin & derivation of Gobsmack.

  13. Jim, well said :)! I was always a huge fan of Fitzgerald, have to admit I often found Hemingway a tad too spare. I liked the way FSF's seemed to match the setting of West Egg (or was it East? No, East was for Old-Money. Either Egg would be fine by me!)

  14. Fun stuff, Kathryn, and definitely getting a shout-out on my Great Stuff post this morning. Two thoughts:

    1. Mark Twain's comment about the right word and the almost-right word. If the fancier word is the RIGHT word, 'nuff said.

    2. There's this thing called context? Have readers truly forgotten how to use it to figure out the meaning of a new word, even before they head for the dictionary? I guess so. It drives me NUTS when a member of my writers' group offers a critique comment that shows how blissfully (?) unaware of context she is. More so because she's a good writer!

  15. One reviewer of my novel Tainted Souls, though generally complimentary, did complain about the "$20 words" in its first couple of pages. Perhaps "debouched" proved to be too much. It's one thing to avoid sesquepedalian pedantry, it's another to keep everything on a third-grade level.

  16. I have a goal to write a novel in which at least 40% of the words contain five syllables or more, and all proper names are written using their Polish equivalent containing strings of 7 or more consonants.

    Yours in polysyllabic literary artisticism,
    Bbpzcasczcyil Cszhsandszsc

  17. Diane, I'll bet they don't teach philosophy in high school anymore. They did back in the day, but I took woodshop instead. And am I glad I did. When I'm not writin' I'm hammerin' and sawin'.

    Oh, and Fitz modeled the Great G after his acquaintances in White Sulfur Springs, Montana. Who knew?

  18. Wow, Basil, I'll have to get the Platinum Rosetta Stone if I'm going to try Polish! Steven, My iPad won't let me type your word without correcting it to 'debauched'. Quick--somebody hold a seance and let Steve Jobs know! Ross, thanks forthe mention!

  19. Like Jim Bell, I can write pretty good. And I can talk good, too.

  20. I refuse to dumb anything down (some may say my work is dumb enough as it is!) but I also don't intentionally try and use obscure impressive words if simpler ones will do:) I have often found though that some Australian and English words that I take for granted (like fortnight) prompt bemusement but I just explain and move on. I think people have forgotten that sometimes its okay to look a word up and see what it means (it's known as educating yourself!)

  21. I confess that I do not and have not routinely looked up words that I am not familiar with when reading. I generally derive a definition (not rarely subsequently found to be erroneous) from context.

    I occasionally simplify vocabulary in the revision process. A colleague once suggested that the use of a certain word "drew attention to itself". I believe he was describing impact on flow based in reader vocabulary and fluency in reading fluency. I suspect that most writers have an above average vocabulary and high reading fluency.

    If we seek to write at the outer boundary of our individual vocabulary and reading ability do we risk alienating some of our readership or limiting the effectiveness of our communication?

    Interesting post.

  22. Jordan, I thought everyone knew the origin of Gobsmacked. For those who don't know the truth of the word's first use here it is.

    It was in the early days of the 13th century as the Mongols making their way west across Eastern Europe. They were in the midst of a squabble over the concept of how they could possibly have arrived in Eastern Europe via a westward direction. The Mongol army rode their horses arguing and not paying particular attention to where they were as the Khan's son who was in charge of the advance, and his chief mapmaker argued with the chief mystic about the size and shape of the earth and how moving west could possibly get you to an eastern place.

    The argument was so severe that the entire army failed to notice that they had ridden directly into a high walled valley on their way to the Danube River to fight the Crusaders. Had they been paying attention they may well have seen the sign that read:

    "Hyrrrr Beesniky Gjyantskiforskcza mit d Buttszckya Schztchinkya y d Schztchnyot Dzcryippen Frumsczhky Llyipzenchoyrchnovikxck y Myoauczhscth y Reyalli Byadbyadbyad Schztchinkya Bereth."

    If they'd had translators of the local lingo available they'd have understood the sign to say something to the effect of: "Here be very big Giants who know little about personal hygiene and are really nasty."

    Suddenly they heard a great big, very loud, and deeply gutteral grinding, grunting "hock" sound that shook the very earth on which their horses trod. This was followed by a great upward inhalation that sucked off their hats and made their long hair stand straight up. Then came the snap and pop of a massive and wet sounding object being flung at force from high atop a hill to their left.

    As they all looked up to see what it was, over the crest of the hill flew a massive brownish green gob of shiny stuff that look very much like a giant snot loogie. So giant it was that the great big hocker blotted out the sun, rumbling against the wind as it tumbled forth upon them.

    With surprising force the gob of snot, which was as big as one of the largest small hills back in their homeland known as Biggolhilyagotdere and of which was often said "Dang, that's a big hill". The hill sized snot gob smacked right into the midst of the Mongol army instantly covering more than two hundred men and their horses in substance so sticky and foul smelling that the Mongols, immediately fearing the continued use of Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction retreated just short of the Danube, never to return to Eastern Europe.

    Ghengis Khan was very angry with his son and stated that if he had led the invasion himself he would have won. His son replied, "I'm sorry father but we were gobsmacked by this defeat, as you would have been."

    And thus gobsmacked entered the vocabulary and the Mongol horde never conquered Europe.

  23. Jordan I cannot thank you enough for putting Basil up to that.

    Outstanding history lesson Basil! I needed that!

    Thank you Kathryn - great post. We have Texting to dumb down the English language as it is - let's not do it in fiction.


  24. I can appreciate both Hemingway and T.C. Boyle. Both stike me as impassioned artists, though the diction of each is very different.

  25. Omg, Basil. I'm still laughing. You seriously need to write a boy's YA story. Just sayin'.