RSS Feed Print
Vocabulary, and Why You Should Have a Large One
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:05 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

When I was in junior high school, we were still  given vocabulary lists to learn each week--but we were also told not to use "big words" in our writing, lest we be guilty of "showing off."  Later I read advice to writers that suggested a large vocabulary was a hindrance, and writers should stick to a very basic, short-simple-word vocabulary.  Readers, this advice went on, would be annoyed if writers "tried to impress them" with unfamiliar words.

Nobody told Shakespeare  that.   And growing up as an avid reader, I learned a lot of vocabulary in the course of reading everything I could get my hands on (much of it way beyond grade level.)   We had several dictionaries in the house, and by the time I was in junior high (and making 100 on all those vocabulary tests) I was addicted to words, the longer and more mellifluous the better..   My early writing proved it (I am very glad we also had a fireplace, into which the most florid of my work disappeared forever.)

But once past the "drunk on words" stage of adolescence my large vocabulary was an enormous help to me as writer--and still is.  And I've never had a reader complain about meeting an unfamiliar word in my published work--unless I made it up.   What this tells me is that readers are not stupid, and writing down to readers by using only short, simple words is just as bad as creating a sentence just to use a great new word you learned from someone else's book. 

The important thing is to use the right word--be it short, long, complicated, simple, Anglo-Saxon or Greek in origin.  The right word--the exact word needed--the precise word that conveys the clearest, hard-edged meaning you intended is the best choice.  Context will lead readers to the meaning, if they haven't a dictionary nearby. 

Words are what we writers have to create our alternate realities with...what our readers use to create those pictures in their heads.   Yes, we have punctuation marks to help out, but they don't make pictures by themselves.   If I write "a bouquet of daisies" you will immediately imagine a different bouquet than "a bouquet of roses." 

Oral storytellers have tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, rate of speech, to assist their words.   Movies and other video modes have full-color moving pictures--closeups of faces, distance shots of forests and mountains and plains and ocean--the sounds of creaking wood and rigging in a sailing ship, of galloping hooves, of music designed to suggest "danger's coming" or  "everything's happy now." 

We have words.  No visuals, no sounds, no motions: words on a page.   That's why the more words we have--especially nouns and verbs--the more precisely we can tell the story we want to tell, the more crisply focused the pictures in our readers' minds will be.   Your character walks down the lane...but does he stroll, or stride, or march, or saunter?  Slouch or lurch or stagger or stump?   Does she drink from a cup, a mug, a glass, a tumbler, a goblet?   Are they laughing, snickering, chuckling, roaring, guffawing?  Each says something about the character, in addition to giving the reader a sharper image of how he moves.   Does the stream at the bottom of the garden gurgle or ripple or slide or chuckle or roar by?    That cabinet-maker your character is going to see, to ask an important question--she's at work, using a...what?  Do you have the name of the tool?  Some of your readers will.   One of your characters rides a horse (this being a non-high-tech setting) and...you need the color names of horse color patterns: black, bay, chestnut, gray, and the names of the white markings (stripe, snip, star, sock, stocking) and the parts of a horse than enter the story, and the parts of saddles and bridles and so on.   Or you have a sailing ship for  your pirate crew...and you need the terminology of sailing in that period.  Or you have a spaceship, or a hospital, or a prison...and you need those specialized terminologies. 

Readers are not stupid.  They won't think you're "trying to impress them" when you use the right word, because many of them already know the right word.   if you use the right word, they will trust you a little more, and relax into your story the way your ears relax when the singer shows you, from the first note, that they're capable of singing well--they're not going to go flat on that tricky bit in the fourth line. 

So go on building that vocabulary--wallow in words--and then use each word where it fits, where it is the best choice in every way.  I know words I have yet to use in a story--that I may never use in a story--but they're in the warehouse just in case.   ("Chatoyant"--a word I learned from a Leslie Charteris "Saint" book...love that word, and yet it does not work in my stories, so far.) 

Most of the words in a story will be ordinary, common words that almost everyone knows.  But if you need a less familiar word, use it with confidence, and let your correct use of the perfect word add sparkle for readers who know it, and a moment of delight to those who are just learning it for the first time.  

Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 3:23 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

I have been criticized for a mannered style and an overabundance of detail, and those comments are absolutely valid. And I've been told (not here, on another site) that I favor fancy words (which I do) for no reason other than to show off. This is the remark that stings. 

Words are tools, and also toys. I have fun with them. I love my quirky word choices and constructions and intricate descriptions and cannot bring myself to simplify, as I am advised to do.

I am not trying to impress others. I'm trying to entertain myself. But I need to decide what to do about my more extreme antics, and your discussion may help me at that. 

Herb Mallette
Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 9:59 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

My lurking word is also a "-yant" word: foudroyant. I not only have not found an appropriate use for it, but don't ever expect to. Still, it's a delightful word.

The notion that writers should constrain their love of words for fear of alienating the audience is, in my view, an evil one. How are others to develop their own love of words if we hide ours away?

In actuality, the advice to avoid "fancy" words is a cure for the wrong problem. Writers whose language is overly florid don't usually have an issue of overusing their vocabularies. They have an issue of imbalance between vocabulary, sentence structure,  figurative language, and character impact. They're trying to get their meaning across through words alone, as in, "The foudroyant diamond emitted myriad coruscating light rays when the noontime sunlight shone on it." The root problem there isn't the fancy words; it's really no better to write, "The shiny diamond gave off many brilliant light rays when the noon sunlight shone on it." Both sentences are failures, and the only reason the first one is more offensive is that it more obviously displays the writer's delusion that he is accomplishing something. In contrast: "At noon, the sun struck wildly into the chamber, so that Arthur, blinded by the diamond's instant coruscations, gave a shout of glee: 'Foudroyant!'"

Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, January 26, 2013 2:56 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I discovered Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour on your list of favorite books. I'm reading it, and enjoying it, loving it, in fact. The language is delightful. 

And, I got hold of a lovely 1900 edition with color plates, never read, pages still needing to be slit apart at the top, as I have encountered in an old edition from time to time.

I figure that this might have been a presentation/prize for penmanship or whatever. There is a sheet of paper in it full of the quips and rhymes that children used to scribble in each other's autograph books at the end of the school year.

A treasure, obtained from a small bookstore in South Carolina, through Amazon, for twenty dollars. Amazing!

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 4:20 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Hi Elizabeth
Before I contribute here; Is this two separate topics in the discussion heading?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Friday, February 8, 2013 2:04 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

I find it very odd that many can go on and on about all kinds of silly things, like what kind of music they listen to as they write, while they have so little to say about our real toys: the words we all use to create our make-believe worlds. That's where the real fun is.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, March 1, 2013 9:16 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Just found this discussion. Absolutely right, Ms. Moon! A writer's working vocabulary is a matter of precision, tone painting and artistic discrimination between the very best word in any given instance and its weaker second-cousin.
Michael Chabon is a consumate wordsmith and a best-selling author--his large vocabulary didn't seem to hurt him none. [sic]

@Mimi? Don't let that comment hurt you; we're all "showing off." That's what an artist does. Sounds like someone was either jealous of your talent or didn't appreciate your style.

One final thought: Stephen King gave some of the best advice I've ever heard for working writers on this topic:

"One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.  This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.  The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.” 

That said, he goes on to say that a writer should use the vocabulary most natural to him. If you're HP Lovecraft, you write like Lovecraft. If you're Elmore Leonard, you write like Elmore Leonard.


Tom Wolosz
Posted: Saturday, March 2, 2013 2:56 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Interesting discussion.  I’d suggest though, that the suggestion to ‘write simple’ might just be advice for a person just starting off writing.  All too often, in a technical writing course I teach, I come across students who immediately try to ‘write scientific.’  That comes off as affected and silly.  Also, you have the common case of someone, thesaurus at the ready, firing ornate words at the reader which really don’t make sense in the context of the sentence.  Such folks often take criticism poorly, often wandering off to lick the wounds to their ego, and never coming within shouting distance of a keyboard (oh, for the days we could just say typewriter!) again.  So ‘write simple’ is a good start. 

The problem is that “write simple’ often leads to boring writing through the repetitive use of weak verbs, and the development of crutch words appearing over and over in the work of the young writer.  Elizabeth is absolutely correct – why run when you can dash or dart, sprint or gallop?  I often find that my first drafts are full of weak, repetitive word use.  Maybe it’s due to the way I grew up, or my wasted youth reading Star Trek novels (oh, how I wish I could blame comic books!).  But then comes the second, and third draft.  I look carefully for those weak (or in some cases, incorrect) or repetitive words, strike them with my red pen and turn to the dictionary or thesaurus.  I probably spend more time searching for the perfect word than I care to admit.  I think a good writer knows when a word is wrong in the same way a composer knows when a note in her symphony is wrong.  The question is then to find the correct one.  While I’m sure that most of the previous contributors to this thread know all about the following, this is for those future readers who might not.  If you are stuck for a word, or its proper usage, try either “The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus” or “The American Heritage Dictionary.”  As far as I’m concerned they are the two best resources on the market today.  If you’ve gotten to the point in your narrative where your MC reaches for the…ah,…thingie…you know the whatsit that sits next to the wheel on the bridge of the ship, and you’re stuck on that word.  Well, there’s always Google, but you might also get a copy of “What’s What, A visual glossary of the Physical world” by Fisher and Bragonier.  Great resources to help any writer.

BTW, just so you know, all three are happily sitting on a book shelf about three feet away as I write this, and just to be on the safe side I consulted two of them in writing this piece.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 8:24 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I found that a good vocabulary, especially of active verbs, is a must. That right word can keep your word count down and deliver the right punch that your sentence needs. I'm doing some editing of chapters I wrote a year ago, and I find myself cutting out two or three words to be replaced with a single, better word.

And, after reading the Mortal Instruments books, I have developed an aversion to the words, "glint," "glimmered," and "shattered." I never thought someone could abuse those words so much. After three books of 150k words, I never want to see those more than once in a single book. Have a large vocabulary, and use it.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 9:46 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Hey, LeeAnna! I "thumbs-upped" your posting above, as I couldn't agree more re: the necessity of a writer having a well-developed repertoire of strong active verbs. Immediately thereafter I glanced down to my right and--alas!--found the glinting, glimmering shards of the shattered--


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 11:01 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Carl, you're such a smart ass. But you are still awesome.

Anyway, I learned about using active verbs from the professor who taught my Lord of the Rings class. He was tired of students using various forms of "to be" in their reports so much that he made us cut out just about every occurrence. While that was years ago, I am just now getting the practice down thanks to learning additional writing tips that trim "word fat."
Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 11:08 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Sounds like you had some great teachers, LeeAnna! I love hearing about your in-classroom experiences; we all learn as you--and others--share.

Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 5:31 PM
LeeAnna - the people I'm editing for, they get earfuls from me about leaving out "to be" verbs/constructions. I found something on Tumblr several months ago about passive verbs:


Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2013 10:33 AM
At this juncture I would like to propose the abolition of the terms antonyms and synonyms, such action predicated on the fact that words, as with colors, have exact shades of meaning; no two colors exactly the same, no two words exactly the same. Words, as with colors, should be part of a family unit containing sisters, brothers and cousins; twins also, but not identical twins. In the color family of red, for instance, we have scarlet, crimson, vermilion, etc. An example of using the exact shade of meaning in the 'Sneaky" family would, in degree of sneakiness, be furtive, covert, clandestine and surreptitious. Strictly speaking, these words are not interchangeable; good writing demands that, as with colors, we use the proper shading so as to neither sell the meaning short nor to overdo it. The thesaurus gives us families of words that must be further delineated in a dictionary so that we do not use a brother when a cousin will do. Writing must have the right temperature for each situation. Words should be neither overheated nor underheated. Precise writing demands the use of precise words. Casually tossing around antonyms and synonyms under the misguided notion that every word has an identical twin, while ignoring the close approximation of a brother or sister, makes for sloppy writing. Does anyone agree with this premise?

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2013 10:53 AM

A vocabulary is similar to a wardrobe. Both should be extensive but used appropriately, which is to say, don;t wear long johns in the heat of summer and don your overcoat in the dead of winter. The writers I admire most are those who can properly use the word "perforce" in a sentence.




Jump to different Forum...