1. captken
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    captken Member

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    Big words. Bad habit?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by captken, Dec 19, 2012.

    I have a decent vocabulary but often hesitate to use some words lest I confuse readers or people I am talking to. Unfortunately, in my opinion,
    some writers gravitate toward words that confuse many readers. I can rationalize the use of some, "Way out there" words if you are writing poetry
    and need a word that rhymes.

    I keep a dicitionary handy while reading. I use spell check when writing, not so much to correct mispellings as to correct typing errors.

    Last night I did a little reading where I didn't have easy access to a dictionary. In one short chapter I found six words that seemed ill chosen. I was more
    put off by the words than confused. I absolutely knew the meaning of "Legerdemain" and "Prescient." I stumbled over "Percutaneous" but recognized the cutaneous
    part and deduced the rest. I drew an absolute blank with "Tenebrous." I didn't have a problem with "Pellucid" or "Nacreous" but I'll bet many people would.

    My question is, why not use words that are understood by 99% of readers rather than use words that confuse 50%? Sometimes I thnk it is an ego thing.
     
  2. Cerebral
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    Cerebral Active Member

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    I've been told the same thing. What were you reading? It sounds like some academic text...in academia, even the simplest concepts are presented in a very esoteric way. It's all really for show. Apparently, you get no respect as an academic if most of the population could understand what you write.
     
  3. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    This discussion pops up every so often and you are right -- if a writer uses a more complicated word when a simpler one would do or, in come cases, would be superior, there is always the feeling that the writer is using the complicated word to show that he knows it, rather than to really communicate something.

    A writer should always use the word that best conveys what he's trying to say. Sometimes the 'high stakes' words can be used to show that a character has certain personality characteristics -- i.e. that he is erudite and it is important to him that everyone knows.
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    The best words to use is the words that best create the effect you are going for. There is no need to use polysyllabic words when a a shorter one will do, and it often makes you look like you are trying too hard to impress. And be honest with yourself about this: are you using long complex words because they are impressive or because you think they will be impressive?

    To illustrate what I mean let us take the first two lines of Ode to Autumn by John Keats:

    These two lines are in essence perfect: they capture the chilly, dramatic, vibrant lushness of British autumns. Notice too how they are not complex words, they are mostly simple but they are effective.

    Now what I'm going to do is use a thesaurus on as many words as I can and see if it loses anything:

    See what I mean? It's just ... arsecandy.
     
  5. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    Lemex, I think you're trying to prove it the other way round. Of course there's no reason to replace simple words (if they already have the desired meaning) with more unusual ones. I think that most of us will agree with that. "Improving" a poem that already works proves nothing.

    The use for these words is when they have meanings, shades, connotations that the simple ones don't. When they actually tell more. No point in looking them up in a thesaurus when you're writing; you need to know them beforehand, and then they pop into your mind at the right places. If they don't, don't force them, they are not necessary. If they do - now the question is whether to keep them or dumb the text down for the readers. Which depends on your story and the target audience.

    Sometimes it might be hard to decide whether the author used them to show off or because they seemed more fitting. But I definitely wouldn't refuse them straight away. Reading is supposed to broaden our minds, isn't it?
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Not always, but it can. Reading is just a way of 'hearing' someone else speak.

    What, anyway, is mind-broadening about a polysyllabic word? I always thought you broadened your mind with new ideas, and you can't get new ideas from a word you barely understand. Besides, my other point is smaller words often hold more meaning than complex ones. A 'mature sun' means more, and is a more beautiful phrase than 'ancient sun', just to use an example. Using larger words to 'improve' a work doesn't prove nothing, you are instead almost always taking away. Take 'maturing sun', it's not just about the sun being old, or the position sun lowering in the sky, but it ushers images of the bright yellow color of the dying sun as well, and the bright, dying light coming from it. And 'maturing' is a better word to use about autumn than many other variants, and it fits with the tone of Keats's poem. The smaller word, the word understood by '99% of people' as the OP said, often has more meaning than more complex words.

    My point is, there is no reason to not use similar words, and often, they fit better with the tone of a piece. In short, yeah, a lot of the time it is just ego - I agree with the OP. The only reason you really should use more complex words is when you are writing something technical, and want to be precisely understood. And even then you really have got to understand how to use those more complex words. George Orwell also pointed out in one of his essays (I forget which one exactly, 'Politics and the English Language' perhaps) that complex words are used to intentionally hide meaning: 'collateral damage' instead of 'civilian deaths' for instance. And why, as a writer, do you want to hide exactly what you mean?

    I'm not saying you shouldn't, just something to consider.

    And yes, I was approaching the topic from the opposite angle.
     
  7. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I read a book on language, that was quite fascinating. The author
    explained that as society advanced, words got more succinct, less
    complex. Syllables shortened. The only ones who seemed to use big,
    roundabout sentenses were those insecure about their social
    standing. Inspired I suppose by legal jargon.
    So, I think in a way it probably is ego. Some get away with it
    and it's beautiful - Nabokov, others though seem to be
    reminding you they probably won every spelling bee.
     
  8. .Mark
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    .Mark Member

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    When I'm writing, I'm not just trying to be clear and concise. I'm not just painting a mental image. I'm trying to put words together that the reader can easily and comfortably interpret. If this makes any sense, I'm structuring the sentence as much as I am its content.

    I always try to keep a thesaurus handy (Thesaurus.com!), and to me it just so happens that most larger words can be substituted for simpler and more digestible alternatives
     
  9. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    That sounds really interesting. Do you happen to recall the title of the book?

     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'll check my bookcase and pm you if you like. I'm in a coffee shop right now and I can't think of
    the author, I think he's asian.
     
  11. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    That's not necessarily true, at least, not in my field. Why use five or six words when one word will do? Granted, it's a big word, but when there's a word limit on articles or books, and you have to get your idea out in full, then you tend to find the words that encompass the entire idea in the shortest phrases. i.e.

    (making this up as I go, though the issue and word is real)

    You could say, "The position of predestination just after the fall of Adam lends itself . . ." and take up 12 words, or you can say, "Infralapsarianism lends itself and take up 3 words. Figure you have 10 cases of that in an article, and that's almost 100 words right there. If the article is limited to a few thousand words, you're talking about 3-5% of the entire article space wasted by useless definitions. Also, many times the words used are set by arguments that have begun decades if not centuries ago, and the words used today still reflect that, because those words are the baseline definition of what's being discussed.

    Of course, then there's the people who intentionally write that way for show. The funny thing is, it's easy to tell and I've found that those people tend to not get as much respect - again, at least in my field.

    ______________

    As far as fiction goes, It really depends on your character, I think. I you watched the third Matrix movie, the Architect spoke in a very high, cerebral English, using some words that probably 80 or 90 percent of those who watched it wouldn't know. It fit perfectly, because he was "The Architect."

    Now, if you had Keanu Reeves's character talking like that, it'd just be hilarious.

    That's interesting - I'd like to know what that book is as well, because it actually is opposite what I've been taught concerning language - well, somewhat opposite. It's right on concerning spoken language, which tends to get shorter and more succinct. But written language tends to get longer because it is reflecting in an ever more clear manner what is being spoken. A modern example is the move from the possessive "Gus' care" to "Gus's car." I remember being told the first was wrong. Now, in most of the style manuals I'm familiar with, the first is incorrect except for a few specific cases.

    If you do find the title let me know, I'd love to read the book. This kind of stuff fascinates me! ;)
     
  12. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    These two sentences are incompatible, at least in my head. I agree with the first one: we should use the words that best create the effect we're going for. Whether the word is big or small, common or obscure; if it is exactly the right word, it's the one I use. I'm with Mark Twain on this. He said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

    That's why the second sentence is incompatible. It recommends using a shorter word that "will do" rather than the perfect word. English has a huge vocabulary but few exact synonyms. "Smog" does not mean the same thing as "mists" and "ancient" does not mean the same thing as "maturing." Keats chose the words he used because they were the right ones to express his thought, not because they were simple and common. He might have written "Season of fog and easy plenty / Close pal of the old sun" if he wanted short, common words. But they wouldn't have been right, either.

    I'm not in favor of writing everything at a third-grade level. If something I write sends a reader to a dictionary, that's okay, so long as it's for the right reason.
     
  13. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    That was my main point. Using a thesaurus to write something in a more fancy way often takes away a lot of the meaning, or makes you say something you don't intend to say. When I say a shorter word 'will do' I was being a bit lazy in using that phrase to be honest, but the right words are the words that create the effect you are wanting. That is good writing, not writing a sentence of complex words just to try and impress using words to impress a powerful image or feeling on the reader. Some people are good at writing complex sentences and have them means so much but honestly, these writers can be quite rare.

    Far from using simple words because the things you are trying to say is simple, use simple words to create a powerful and beautiful effect. Writing a sentence like 'The gibbous moon shone streaming light-rays upon the hideous blasted thing with membranous wings, and pre-historic, hoary physicality that was of dimensions far beyond the normal conception of normal human thought' is also bad. Just another kind of bad because it's trying too hard. Whereas something like 'Of man's first disobedience,/ and of the fruit of that forbidden tree/ whose mortal taste brought death into the world' had it's desired effect of the elevation. But something like 'Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table' is good and creates the right effect, and aside from maybe 'etherized' where are the overtly complex words in that quote?

    Milton clearly isn't 'third-grade' level, but are you seriously saying Keats could be considered that with his rather simple language? Is Hemmingway with his rather stripped style? Is Eliot?
     
  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I think the book is - I've been Googling :) - Language in Thought and Action by Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa.
     
  15. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    For stories or novels, I tend to favor simpler words over obscure ones. Of course, this depends on the context. I don't think Nabokov's Lolita would have had the same effect if the obscure words were replaced by more common ones. The connotation of the word also makes a huge difference (consider home vs. house).

    For poetry, it can be hard to find replacement words for several reasons. First, like minstrel said, there are few exact synonyms in English. Second, the poet may be restricted by beat and/or meter, in which case finding a replacement for an obscure word may be impossible. Third, there may be other poetic devices in play that require certain words in order to be effective.
     
  16. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Cool. Thanks! I'll check it out. Even though I wasn't the one you were originally looking it up for, I still appreciate it!

    EDIT: Just bought it from Amazon for about six dollars including shipping. Looks like I'll have a little Christmas reading!
     
  17. captken
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    captken Member

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    The title of the book is "Versions of the Truth." It was written by a lawyer which might explain the word choices.

    The tale took place in southern Arizona in the 1920's. The main character was an attorney.

    I recall one thing from a Technical Writing course I took thirty or so years ago. The prof said, "Sentences more that 10 words in length
    tend to lose Engineers. The same goes for words of more than one syllable." This reminds me of the K.I.S.S. principle in the US Airforce.
    Keep it simple, stupid.
     
  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I think a distinction should be made between reading and understanding. I would say that a fifth grader could read Hemingway (my fifth grade class actually had a copy of The Old Man and the Sea), though there are some themes in his works that a fifth grader wouldn't fully understand. I appreciate the fact that some writers can write about complex things using very simple language.
     
  19. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks! I added it to my amazon cart (although did not yet purchase it.)
     
  20. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm an engineer, and I find this more laughable than offensive. I've also done a hell of a lot of technical writing for engineers, and, being the very smart bunch they are, they swallow 50-word sentences and six-syllable words whole, and ask for more.

    No, of course not. I wasn't referring to them; I was referring to the kind of writing in which, to appeal to the third-grade reader, the writer has substituted short but wrong words for long but right words. I was saying that you can't push this "shorter is always better" thing too far.

    BTW, did you copy that example beginning with "The gibbous moon ..." from H.P. Lovecraft? If not, you sure do a good impression of him!

    (I have actually used the word "gibbous" in a story for a writing class, and a couple of people complained they had to check the dictionary on it. Weird. I think I learned the word "gibbous" when I was in third grade or so. But then, I was an astronomy and space nerd as a kid. Still am, actually!)
     
  21. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    That happens to me since I have kind of a specific language from my studies. Sometimes it creeps over into my writing. I once used "enfleshed," and was asked if it was even a word. It is, but I guess it's so narrow in use that even some dictionaries don't have it. Who woulda thunk it?

    Since then, I've tried to make sure to tone that kind of stuff down, though every once in a while if it fits the voice, I'll use it.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, I suspect that your professor was airing a grudge, more than expressing reality. You can't be an engineer without the ability to keep a dozen ideas dancing on the head of a pin, and that generally includes a strong ability with language--an engineer is more likely to err in the direction of over-complex, not over-simplified. Now, engineers may be impatient with flowery language, but that doesn't mean that they can't understand it.
     
  23. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Fair enough. :)

    And thanks. I didn't take it from any Lovecraft story, I just copied his style. He was one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager and I started writing writing Lovecraft pastiches. I can still rip a mean Lovecraft parody. :p
     
  24. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    my answer is, there's no good reason not to do that... and very good reason to follow that wise advice...

    my experience is that it almost always is!
     
  25. captken
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    captken Member

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    I worked for a short time "Debullchitizing" the US Federal Register for a major power company. In this capacity I worked with several corporate attorneys who insisted on
    highfalutin words. The object of the game was to make the Federal Register more readable for plant employees who needed understandable information at their fingertips
    so they could make decisions that affected environmental compliance. If anything, the lawyers rewrite made quick interpretation even harder. A couple of times I was
    ready to sock one of the guys. I took a job with another company to get away from the hassle. Not long after that I dropped out of the corporate world and never missed
    it a bit.

    Reading text containing frequent words or phrases you have to decipher is almost as aggravating as reading with really dirty glasses.
     

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