Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Vocabulary Vs Understanding

Us writers love language and it is our natural playground. There are few more satisfying things than a well crafted sentence which creates a setting or evokes an emotion in the reader.

However, there are times when we scribblers can go to far with stunning verbiage. I feel I have at worst an average vocabulary, yet there are times when I’ve been in conversation with colleagues or friends and have used a word or two which has made their eyes visibly glaze over.

As a reader myself there are few things than can pull me out of a story quicker than a word I don’t understand or even guess the context of. If the word is the name for something ancient and unknown to me, then I expect the writer to inform me of the object and its purpose, look or attraction. Being fair most do at some point in the novel. However the introduction of words which are not used in everyday language outside of a laboratory or space station have been known to cause a curse to erupt from my lips.

Don’t get me wrong, I love playing with words and finding double meanings for words so that I can twist them to my own purpose. It’s the usage of innocuous, inconsequential and hitherto un-encountered syntax which elicits the explosions of diatribe aimed at thesaurus swallowing linguists.

Don’t even get me started on those writers who litter their work with foreign languages with no explanation. I know that the British are not renowned for mutli-lingualism but there’s no need to ram the point home every other page. If you’re going to insert another language into a book written in English either explain it or kick its bahookey (A Scottish term for bottom) [see what I did there] right off the page. Local dialect and terminology is acceptable provided that an explanation is forthcoming.

As a writer I try to limit my use of long or obscure words. Yes I have picked up a dictionary or thesaurus to find a better word than the one I’ve written, but I will not use the replacement if I am in any way unsure of its connotation or possible interpretation. I try to keep my language relevant and use everyday language which is comprehensible to the majority of readers.

To summarise this post I would have to say “don’t use words which nobody else will understand” and yes I am aware that I have taken over four hundred words when the eight in quotation marks would have sufficed.

Feel free to tell me I’m right, wrong or even full of merde via the comments below. First person to point out the irony of the language I’ve used in the post will win a signed air guitar.


  1. Very interesting and well put. As a new writer I always feel a little insecure by the literature snobs who somehow evoke feelings of inadequacy just because I WANT to write in a way that is easy to read. Dont get me wrong I do not condemn those who wish to write in a "heavier" language, but personally I dont enjoy reading the sort of books where i have to pause and digest each paragraph in order to understand what the author is trying to communicate..so why would I want to write this way? Thanks for this blog, it has really given me the confidence to "keep it real"!!! Bravo.

  2. Depends on the level of education of your reader, Graham ....some will have far wider vocabularies and in other languages...others won't. Anyroadup, if they're reading on a Kindle, there's no excuse...highlight the word and look it up in the dictionary. Learn something.

    If we all only used short words simple enough for absolutely everyone to understand, we'd all be writing Brit Grit!

    Ow!!!!! That hurt!!

  3. There is , of course, all the difference in the world between deliberately keeping things simple and a lack of vocabulary

  4. I agree, Graham. I always think of James Michener, who said that a writer should use ordinary language in extraordinary ways. That said, I do enjoy playing with words, so the odd biggie can slip out when I am unwary.

  5. Excellent post, Graham.

    My agent said to me: "Write in plain English".

    Personally, I think you have to find balance, and you instinctively know when you have found it.

    After all, why use a big word when a diminutive word will suffice? ;-)

    Good stuff,

  6. As you know, I try to keep things stripped back and in every day terms, but every now and again enjoy dropping in an obscure or archaic term....just to keep the word in usage. Not trying to be flash, just doing my bit to preserve the language. I also like coming across a word in a book I don't know, and then looking it up, which all helps enrich my vocabulary. But you're right in the snobbery aspect, where it just sounds like the writer is trying to sound clever for cleverness' sake. That to me smacks of self-indulgence.

    On a funny note I received an email from a reader who was impressed that I'd used the term "susurration" in one of my novels. He went on to state the only other writer he'd read using the term was Dean Koontz. I'm a big fan of Koontz so it's highly likely that's where I learned the meaning of the word...but it fit my scene quite nicely (I was describing the sound of a breeze going through tall grasses and making them rasp together).

  7. Thanks for commenting guys. Good points all round. I enjoy learning new words and the use of the language is one of the best tools writers have. I just don't like being hauled of the story on a continual basis by egregarious show offs.