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Monday, October 11, 2010

What Did You Say?

         Do you like to use impressive words or would you rather impress with your use of words? 

          I've always enjoyed building my vocabulary with interesting new words.  One of my favorite Reader's Digest features is the one about building one's vocabulary.  Spelling and vocabulary were two of my favorite subjects in school.  Like many of you, I like to have a good knowledge of words and to be sure that I am using the best and most correct words when I am writing.  However, I do find it somewhat annoying when I have to continually refer to a dictionary when I am reading.

         The average reading level of adults in the United States is typically cited as being somewhere between sixth and ninth grade, depending on what source is citing the statistic.  It's probably safe to say that the typical newspaper or popular magazine is pretty representative of the reading level of the average American.  Many, probably most, modern fiction books are written at a level that is easily understandable to the average middle school student.  

         Just the other day I was reading an excerpt of a scholarly treatise on a philosophical topic.  As I read--or tried to read--I couldn't help but shake my head in amazement at the lack of clarity due to the author's usage of obscure terminology.  This author was probably writing for a very specific audience that may have been very familiar with the terms, but as a layman I was not impressed.  This approach is common in academic writing, but could it be done better?

          Okay, bad example--academia is a world unto itself.  But thinking about literature or popular fiction, can an author capture a large readership with the appeal of large or uncommonly used words?   In the nineteenth century, many of the authors deemed as "the greats" seemed to be able to write in a more educated sounding style probably because their audiences were often more educated.   Later as the printed media began to reach a broader audience, the style and vocabulary became simpler.

         I don't have much of a problem with this "dumbing down" of literature because I want to read more quickly without having to stop to figure out what I've just read.   I'm more interested in straight-forward creative writing that gets the point across quickly and uniquely,  I'll take an uncommon metaphor or a precisely detailed description as long as it doesn't bog down my reading, unless I'm reading some artsy piece which I am expecting to bog me down.  There's nothing quite as bad as reading a fast paced action scene and having to stop to look up a word--give it to me straight and simple.

         That's the way I try to write.  Sure, I might throw in a more uncommonly used word now and then, but I try to do it in slow paced sections where thought is required anyway.  Pedantic language is good for pacing. When you want the flow to go, go, go then terse stacatto and fluid phrasing makes the read move with the action you are trying to depict. 

           Not many of the writers who are reading this are trying to write scholarly tomes.  If you are, I hope you receive a grant to pay your way.  If you try to write over the heads of your potential audience to show them how brilliant you are, then you may find that your audience will be very limited.  Most of the reading audience is not looking to be dazzled by erudition, but to be entertained by good writing that provides them with a rewarding experience of story and message.

          "My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way."     — Ernest Hemingway  

               
         What's your take on this?   Do you make an extra effort to add more obscure or less often used vocabulary to your writing?    How would you classify your style of writing?   Who are some of the writers you admire the most?

27 comments:

Misha said...

It's a balance to me. If I find a word that EXACTLY fit what I'm trying to say, I'll use it without worrying whether the person who read it knows what it means. I have a few reasons for this.

1) Usually it is easy to divine from context what the word is trying to say.

2) If the people in the book are better educated, dumbing down anything won't fit.

3) Yes... the average American has a 6th to 9th grade reading level. BUT how many average Americans actually read? I'm not talking about magazines and newspapers. I'm talking about novels and poetry and short stories. Most people that spend time to read novels have the vocabulary needed to read it. Reading builds vocabulary due to Number 1 above.

4) To me arguably the most important reason: NEVER underestimate a reader's intelligence.

Mary said...

Misha's #4 would be my #1 --Readers know when you've underestimated their intelligence and soon you'll be off their reading list.
#1 would become #2 -- Good writing explains itself without preaching.
Being an optimist, I believe that readers rise to the characters and plot of a well written book and any book can improve a person's working vocabulary.

DEZMOND said...

oh, oh, I see someone has find some time to do a bit of redecorating :))))

Writers and people who use obscure terminology are usually pompous and egocentric. A wise man doesn't really have to use complex vocabulary in order to say wise things. This is why I like your writing style, Lee, it's educated but not snobbish.

I have to know gazillion of words from my own language due to my profession, but I've never liked people, professors, scientists, critics, writers who use pretentious language in order to sound educated.

Jules said...

I agree with ole` Ernest, simple and to the point. Now did I inspire this change here? :) You get tired looking at the same thing don't you?
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Liza said...

I try to write the way I speak, which means using everyday language for the most part. If I throw in a big word it is because it fits and I'm confident that if the readers don't know the meaning, they'll figure it out because of the context.

Gregg said...

Well, first let me say great looking site! See you could do it and you did do it! This is great.

I love the pic in your post, it is from A Puritan's Mind one of my favorite sites.

It is hard sometimes to have to read something and a dictionary at the same time. But I hate the thought of dumbing down rather than building up. I think we give up to easily and make allowances rather than educate and develop.

The Golden Eagle said...

If the meaning I'm trying to convey isn't easily explained by more "common" words, then I'll use something a little more complicated--however, there are a lot of words that mean (or at least passably close to) the same thing. So, I also base what I do on the characters--if the character is educated (or sometimes just stuck-up) then I'll use different words than someone who's less educated.

Carol Kilgore said...

No. Call me Plain Jane.

Hart Johnson said...

Lee-my assessment is largely what yours is--I by FAR prefer an unsual COMBINATION of fairly simple words to a bunch of big or unknown words. I like learning new words--so if there is a reason a character is having something explained--fair enough, or if there is a use where the context makes it totally obvious...

On a related note: I work in academia and came to believe a long time ago that the people who can put very complicated ideas into plain English are a lot smarter than the people who can't (even if they indeed understand those complicated ideas). People will hide behind big vocabulary, and i think they are trying to sound smarter than they are.

Laura Eno said...

I won't use pretentious language but the occasional uncommon word that fits is fine with me. It's appalling how low the reading level is, but the people on the lower end of the scale don't read anyway. If they did, the scores would be higher.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like the new look, Lee!

And while I often use bigger words when speaking, I don't when writing.

Stephen Tremp said...

Since my characters are M.I.T. grad students, professors, and other professionals, I add in a few words here and there that are not nornally in my everyday conversation. I think this makes the book a bit more professional and sophisticated, but not to the extent they talk like British people.

Stephen Tremp

Arlee Bird said...

Misha -- I totally agree with the points you make. I'm essentially referring to a writer who uses words primarily for the purpose of trying to impress and in doing so muddles the meaning of what he or she is trying to convey or frustrates the reader who is just reading for entertainment sake.

Mary -- I think you are right about not trying to write down to a perceived lower level because you think your audience is dumb. I like the idea of "educating" readers to help improve their vocabulary and other knowledge--it's partly why people read. I just think from a commercial standpoint a writer is doing themself a disservice by creating a lingustic quagmire for reader to have to decipher in order to understand what is going on or what the writer is trying to convey.

Dezmond -- I'm trying to get the page write, but my computer hasn't been totally cooperating with me. I'm going to continue to play with the page.
You've made the point about my writing style and I'm always flattered. A certain exclusivity of pretentious writing style is expected from scholarly writing, but I think a genuine voice gets a message across more effectively in most cases.

Jules -- Old Ernest hasn't retained his popularity for no reason--his writing is very readable and yet effective and deep.
I was content with my old page, but thought I'd experiment. This experiment is not over yet.

Liza -- Exactly! You and I are on the same page here.

Gregg-- "Dumbing down" perhaps sounds negative which is why I used the quotation marks. I don't mean to make the writing less intelligent by any means and in more serious works such as nonfiction or analytical essays I think the scholastic approach is fine. But if you're just at the beach or on a plane reading something, some arcane terminology can be a stumbling block and is perhaps best avoided. It's a matter of context I'd say.

Golden Eagle -- Good point. In dialogue or narrative point of view, the vocabulary should definitely fit who is speaking. If the word is essential to understanding what is being said, it can always be explained to the person being spoken to.

Plain Jane, er I mean, Carol -- Yeah, if yer gonna say something just spit it out without makin' in all fancy and all.

Arlee Bird said...

Hart -- Nothing I need to add to what you said. We're in agreement.

Laura -- I don't know how the analysts come up with the determination of what the average reading level is, but I think it sounds pretty correct. We only need to look at the books and magazines that sell the most--I'd say there's a reason for it.

Alex -- Thanks, but I hope I can still improve on the look a great deal. When I try to speak in too big of words I get all tongue-tied. Well, actually according to my kids and other people I do use big words when I'm talking.

Stephen -- You are also writing about technological ideas the uses words that really have no synonyms. Your usage is necessary because of the context in which they are used.
But what's this about the British. Do they actually use any more extensive vocabulary than Yanks? I always thought it was the accent that made them sound more intellectual, but I really have listened to the words they were using. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

r-LEE-b ~
I have a larger vocabulary than I generally use, regardless of whether I'm speaking or writing. But especially when it comes to writing, I am a firm follower of the advice given by Mark Twain and Douglas Hyde:

I never write "metropolis" for seven cents because I can get the same price for "city." I never write "policeman" because I can get the same money for "cop."
~ Mark Twain

Some of what has still to be learned by the West may appear to be almost absurdly simple and elementary, but it is important nonetheless. For example, never to use a long word where a short one will serve equally well, never to write with the idea of proving one's own erudition but rather in order to ensure that one's ideas shall be made as understandable to the reader as possible.
~ Douglas Hyde
(from his book "Dedication And Leadership")

Hokey-Smoke, Brother, is that a photo of you at the top of this blog? How 1970s of you. I didn't know I had any hippie friends! :o) I wasn't sure I was in the right place at first, but I like the new old look.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Debbie said...

I'd rather write something I think would appeal to the broader audience. It is sad that so many folks have a low reading level.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Love the new look.....thought I'd gone to the wrong blog.

I like to use alternative words to make my poem for interesting, they are simple enough as it is so sometimes like to use words I wouldn't normally.

Enjoyed the read.
Yvonne.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I like your new blog design.

Funny, I posted a blog on using long words today. Though long words fascinate me, I like to write and to read books with short, easy-to-understand words. But if a longer word works better I don't mind them scattered here and there. Of course, a lot of word usage depends on the character who's speaking.

Arlee Bird said...

StMc -- Some excellent quotes there. Yes, that's me as the disco-hippie juggler. I'm posting about the photo on Thursday.

Debbie -- If you want to be a populist writer, you need to speak their language.

Yvonne -- I think a poet can get away with using more unusual words, but even so it's probably better to write for the most readers if you're aiming for a larger readership.

Jane -- I'm going to check your post now. Sounds like some synchronicity going on here.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee .. I just write .. but when I speak I sometimes clarify things ..

I agree educational levels have gone down and texting does not help .. but we have to have faith in the kids .. I'm sure everyone despaired of me way back when!

Great post and thoughts .. thanks - Hilary

Adina West said...

Good point about academic writing - I always consider the one who can express a complex idea simply the better writer. If academic writing is difficult to follow either through intentional use of complex language or through laziness of structure, I think the writer hasn't done their job properly.

In my own writing, I have to say I don't intentionally pitch to a particular reading level. If I was writing for children I would certainly give my choice of language more thought, but when writing for adults I just use language I'm comfortable with myself. I would never try to include complicated words just for the sake of it. I usually write commercial fiction - and whether right or wrong I think of 'big words' as the domain of literary fiction!

Paula Slade said...

Nothing puts me to sleep faster than an article, book or essay that is continuously peppered with $20 dollar words.

However, now and then, I like to see a well chosen synonym for a commonly over-used word.

Favorite writer - so many!!!!

kimberlyloomis said...

Good topic! As a reader I'm more likely to be annoyed by writers that have an all too basic understanding of language versus those who push me on any level. I have no requirements beyond the author writing genuinely. For some authors this means an impressive lexicon while still others have brilliant metaphors within their narrative. You can tell when an author's forcing things into the work to demonstrate their knowledge (Time Traveler's Wife) versus when the verbosity is simply how the author communicates (Witch of Cologne, The Road).

For my own writing, I just go with the flow. To write simply in my work is to simply use as few words possible to get my point across. Sometimes that means an odd word every now and again without considering more than the definition of the word and the rhythm of the sentence with it.

Favorite authors: Meredith Duran (a historical romance author with an excellent vocabulary, knows what it is to show NOT tell, and is seriously brilliant), Cormac McCarthy (only read "The Road"- heard his other works are not as excellent - and was so blown away by it I have to mention him), Michael Crichton (because he was so bright that, even though his prose irritated me, his plots were worth reading).

Arlee Bird said...

Hilary -- I hate textspeak, but maybe because I don't know how to use it. Pop culture does seem to shun sounding educated at times.

Adina -- Attempted to sound literary or scholarly probably loses a great deal of a commercial audience unless the writer has something extraordinary to offer readers.

Paula -- I frequently refer to my thesaurus so I don't overuse words.

Kimberly -- I might disagree with this popular assessment of McCarthy's works. The Road is certainly the most commercial of his works and the easiest to read, but I think most of his other writing is actually superior, though sometimes difficult to adapt to at first. I really like The Road, but I think his West Texas trilogy--All the Pretty Horses, The Border, and Cities on the Plain are perhaps his best. But really I haven't read anything by him yet that I didn't like and I recommend that you read more.

Mohamed Mughal said...

I put my effort into using the RIGHT word, whether it's obscure or not.

DiscConnected said...

"Just the other day I was reading an excerpt of a scholarly treatise on a philosophical topic."

Lee-

That's amazing-I too was reading the new issue of Mad magazine the other day!

Kidding. Seriously, I think that it is good to stretch your vocabulary as long as it is done for your own enjoyment, rather than to impress.

As an English major for 31/2 years before switching to accounting, I still have a tendency to "grade" while I am reading. My latest pet peeve is how Americans are constantly misusing the word "myself."

You'll hear or read things like, "They gave the money to myself and Idjit." The people who say such things think they're showing off how smart they are.

Wrong!

"Myself" is a reflexive pronoun, and should be used when the subject of a sentence is the same person as the object of the sentence.

I can give the money to myself. You can give the money to yourself. They can give the money to themselves. But they cannot give the money to myself. They can only give the money to me.

I hear this in interviews constantly, and it makes my skin crawl.

This is why I start with the thought-use the vocabulary for yourself, not to impress.

Usually when trying to impress, people fail miserably.

And now, I am through pontificating.

All you writers probably know this already, but most adults have a very weak command of the English language.

Larry

DiscConnected said...

Lee-

There are some pretty good universal rules, like keep it simple and know your audience.

Use of obscure terminology is probably never a good idea, but I do not think things have to be dumbed down, either.

I think if an author finds his (or her) voice, and it is normal to use a broad vocabulary, that comes across, and most readers who are savvy can get the definition of an unknown word from the context.

An author who uses a 25 cent word to impress may find they more often than not misuse it. While many people may not catch the error, I think they'll see through the facade.

Larry again