Friday, August 14, 2015

A Word Fitly Written

Recently my dad, an English honors student in high school, was lamenting “the deterioration of the English language.” That prompted a discussion at our dinner table. To my family it appears that a much richer vocabulary was in use decades ago than today, and fewer people today know what all these beautiful, precise English words mean.

Some writing advisers tell us to use simple language in our stories. Readers don’t want to be taxed by having to stop and think, Now what does that word mean? It would interrupt the flow of your tale. This advice does have a point … but if every writer used only simple words, I would think all writing would start to sound the same. And people’s vocabulary would shrink.

How important is a wide vocabulary? Well, every time you learn a new word, your knowledge of the world expands. You’re introduced to new concepts you never heard of before, or at least you learn how to use a convenient handle on a concept you never knew had a handy word. Language is tightly knit to knowledge. Writing that uses a rich vocabulary benefits readers’ minds, preparing them to learn challenging things.

Some readers love writing that makes them think, others just want to be told a tale that doesn’t require pondering, while everyone else spreads along the spectrum between them. So, you have to decide what satisfies you as a writer and what kind of readers you want to appeal to. In my experience, reading a story told with stronger vocabulary and lyrical writing absorbs me more than one that’s not, so I try that in my own stories.

Drawing from a deep vocabulary well and using varied words doesn’t mean flowery or obscure writing. In fact it often helps curb wordiness, a goal in good writing, through precision in language (using less words to say the same thing). It contributes to “economy of words.” When I rewrite, a search for the right word (and it’s typically a quite normal word, just not one that immediately jumps to mind) is often rewarded when I can eliminate two or three words in its place:

He walked down the hallway sideways.
He sidled down the hallway.

Precise words also paint more striking images. Generally, words that have lots of different meanings and uses are weak, because they show up everywhere or don’t describe something clearly enough for you to see it. Examples include turn, come, go, see, do, and make. Sometimes these are irreplaceable, but other times a stronger word, which actually paints a picture, can be used instead. Consider turn. Turn has many different meanings, but here are just three representatives of words to replace it:

Marla turned when the door opened. Marla pivoted when the door opened.
The car quickly turned left at the intersection. The car veered left at the intersection.
The prince turned into a frog. The prince morphed into a frog.

Does the second sentence of each example seem more interesting than the first?

I love that quote by Mark Twain (one of the best writers to ever put pen to paper): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Do you prefer a style that uses only the simplest words? Or do you like precision and varying your language?
Do you think it’s okay to put in a word now and then that a few readers may have to look up in a dictionary?
What words do you tend to overuse, or that you notice others overusing? What can you substitute in their place?

Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog


  1. I use the word *like* all the time when comparing something. I replace it sometimes with *as* but even that can get overused. I wouldn't try to use words too often that readers would have to look up, because I know how I've been annoyed when I've been reading and have to stop and get the dictionary out.

    Writers need to delve into more intriguing writing styles. Although I wouldn't say we should write like the classics, I have thought how in those days books written by Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, etc. were all common reads. We've definitely become poor in our use of words!!

    1. It's valuable when you can recognize words that you use too often. When I'm editing, I find I've sometimes used certain words several times in the same passage---it got stuck in my mind and then sounded good for every situation, I guess. :P

      Yes, I've thought about how the classics were common back then, too! And now many people only read them for high school or college and think them a real challenge. : ( I always appreciate a writer with a good command of the English language.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. Thanks for the great post!!! Have you read "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White? They talk a lot about not using unnecessary words and the fact that sometimes one word would be better in the place of two.

    Sometimes, though, it is easy to err on the side of using archaic or awkward sounding words in place of common ones. As a writer and a reader, I find that the simple words can be the better ones in certain cases.

    1. You're welcome! Thank you for your comment! I have not read "The Elements of Style" cover to cover but I often refer to it to see what the authors have to say about a subject (I looked at it for this post, as a matter of fact :) ).

      I agree about the archaic or awkward words ... the key is to find the precise word, not a flowery one (however tempting that might be! :D) and not at the expense of what sounds good. We must still strive to be clear to readers!

  3. I've found that it's not just the words itself people now days have trouble with, it's the sentence structures. Write a sentence in the style of the old classics and watch how editors and critics respond. :) Now readers want short sentences all the time, partly because their attention span has shortened from all the videos and animated things, and partly because it's too much work to figure out a long sentence. We are out of shape for real reading.

    1. Good point, Rebekah!
      If people read more of the older books, they'd get used to those longer sentence structures and the style of writing and understand it, no problem. I find that if I haven't read a classic for a while, the first couple chapters are difficult ... but once I'm in, I understand and enjoy every word. Attention spans have definitely shortened over the years.
      Thank you for your comment!


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