1. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Big words vs simple words

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Manav, May 26, 2010.

    Big words vs simple words

    Recently I was reading this story with lots of BIG words. Some reviewers said it was not a good idea to reach a wider audience, but the author defended saying some people do enjoy reading such stories. Personally, I struggle reading them. On the first read I feel so dumb. After flipping the pages of my dictionary many times over, I do finally get all the big words and eventually the story :) I feel the writer is trying to show off, but, in the end, such writers succeed in making me feel that they are far more intelligent than me.

    So, do I need to learn big words to write good intelligent stories? I mean, 'apocalyptic' sounds far more intelligent than saying 'end of the world' :(
     
  2. Forkfoot
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    Forkfoot Contributing Member Contributor

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    A good vocabulary never hurts. Lotsa big words & uber-purple prose is a turnoff for many, though.
     
  3. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe just keep to one or two fancy words per page?
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Hemingway wrote using simple words and sentences. A writer does not need to use big, fancy words to get a point across.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I was wondering about "bog words", whether you meant potty mouth.

    Big words have their uses - that is why they exist. Sometimes you really need to be specific. Your doctor should start be telling you you have a malignant blastoma instead of a kind of cancer tumor thingy. Using a specific, clinical term, even if you don't understand what it is at first, reassures the patient that the doctor, at least, knows what the exact problem is.

    Also, a less common word may take the place of several simpler ones. She genuflected is more concise than she bent to one knee and bowed respectfully, and may work better in some particular context. In truth, I would usually prefer the latter, even though it is wordier.

    Also, a less common word may simply be a better fit due to more precision of meaning or stronger connotative fit. A vaulted ceiling gives a better visual than a high ceiling, and a crenellated battlement tells the reader more than castle wall.

    But using fancy words for the sake of educating the reader or demonstrating the beauty of a broad vocabulary is, in my opinion, somewhat arrogant and condescending. It's showing off.

    I believe in expressing thoughts in the simplest language that adequately convets the thought. I won't talk down to anyone, but neither will I spew cloud-words to sail majestically over the heads of the audience.

    I believe I have an above-average vocabulary. But I'm more satisfied with knowing a subset of that vobulary well enough to choose the right word that both I and the person I am speaking to will understand, and that conveys the full meaning I intend.

    So I alter the KISS philosophy slightly. Instead of Keep It Simple, Stupid! or one of the more vulgar variants, I say, Keep It Simple and Smart. And note that Smart itself has two meanings that are both appropriate to the phrase.
     
  6. Northern Phil
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    Northern Phil Active Member

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    I think what the author your describing has done is looked up the word in his thesaurus and then replaced it with another that sounds smart and intelligent, it's easy enough to do, i.e. The abode was pestiferous.

    Although that sentence sounds smart and intelligent most people won't know what the word pestiferous means. (Look it up and you'll be surprised).

    Personally, I prefer it when a story flows smoothly. Although my vocabluary is quite large there is the odd time when I'm reading that I will have to look up a word and that does detract from the enjoyment of the story. If there are too many words that I don't know or if the story is difficult to read then I will either stop halfway through or not bother with that author in the future.

    For me the only time that I would consider looking in a thesaurus to find an alternative word is when I feel that there is too much repetition of a particular word.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I use a thesaurus (rarely) when I know there's a better word, but I just can't put my finger on it. More often, I just move on, and sometime soon after, the right word pops into my head. Background processing.
     
  8. Tamsin
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    Tamsin Senior Member

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    It depends on the audience you are writing for. If you are aiming your writing at well educated people then you need to use a wider range of vocabulary than if you are aiming it at the mass market or teens for example.

    If you read Lionel Shriver you will find a wider range of vocabulary than a Mills and Boon novel because the markets are totally different. You need to consider who your target reader is. If your target reader is someone who is school educated then mostly simple vocabulary is suitable. If your story is more complex in nature and is aimed at professionals/university educated people then use more sophisticated language.

    The thing is you have to be true to yourself as a writer. If you are reaching for the thesaurus every five minutes to sound intellectual it usually has the opposite effect. People can tell when someone is writing in a genuine way. It is blatantly obvious when people put sophisticated vocabulary in a story just because they think it sounds intelligent. Each word needs to be well suited to whatever you are describing.

    John Steinbeck had great success writing in a very simplistic way; Lionel Shriver's fiction includes more complex vocabulary, and she has achieved great success. Many adults read Harry Potter and enjoy it. Dan Brown is another example. He doesn't write in a sophisticated way BUT it means he has mass appeal. It just comes down to what people prefer to read. Mills and Boon novels sell millions!

    Different readers will find the style they like. As a writer you have to be true to yourself by describing things the way you see them. Read the books that you like and don't read the ones that make you feel bad. Of course it is likely that there are many writers out there more intelligent than you, just like there is for all of us. It is not an issue worth worrying about though because no one else has your experience or perspective on things, so as a writer you are totally unique (and very good from what I have read of your work).

    Real intelligence has very little to do with the amount of words you know. Intelligent writing is not about writing big words. The ability to understand concepts is a far more important skill to have as a writer than just regurgitating the entire Oxford dictionary.
     
  9. AngelWings
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    AngelWings New Member

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    I have found many discussions & thoughts on this subject, both online and in various writing books and there seem to be many (valid) arguments for both sides.

    I love words, both written and spoken, and have always loved volcabulary (sad but true, even as a child), and that's surely the nature of the beast if you are interested in being a writer, or indeed are currently a writer ? But should I then inflict what some would class as my ego, on an unsuspecting populace (tongue in cheek there) ?

    Boringly, perhaps, to some extent I would have to agree with previous views that it depends on what you're writing & for who. But, I would disagree to a certain extent that it would depend on how "educated" people were. My humble opinion is that is would depend more on the target market for any particular piece of work, unless it was just for my own personal enjoyment.

    Literary Prose - well, from the limited research & reading I've done on this sector, this would seem to be the area most likely for the long and unusual type of words. Those readers who would be expecting to see it.

    Technical Writing - Whilst you could argue that engineers or similar professional would be experienced, and dare I say educated, enough in their field to understand long complicated words.... does that really mean they want to read them all the time ? how about people new to those fields ?

    And as for instruction manuals, how many times have you picked one up to learn how to work a new toy - only to feel like you've been given one written in a foreign language ? All that techo speak ?

    Business Writing - It may be sad to see the formal, old school style of writing being surpassed by a more modern and simple style, but let's be honest... unless you're in a Law type firm (where it does still seem to be the norm) do you really want to be reading a two page letter, when one would do ? And just by the simple exchange of simple, plain words instead of formal, flowery phrases. For example, rather than proclaiming that "renumeration and incidential compensation is commensurate with experience etc...." Why not just say "Salary and benefits depending on experience" ?

    Specialist subjects - Jargon is great I guess, for those in the know and yes, there are areas that have specific words for things, like the Medical profession. But even here, is it really necessary ? For example; when I was a teenager I had an accident and was taken to A&E. After being looked at, prodded, x-rayed and other medical proceedures - the Doctor tells me... " You have a fractation of the Clavicle" errrm, yeah, great.... but just do me a favour Doc ... I'm in a tiny weeny bit of pain here... so can you say that one more time in English ? Oh, well you've got a broken collar bone. Isn't that so much easier ?

    Fiction - Now I know I said I love volcabulary, but when I'm reading fiction I'd definately lean towards simple short words not long unusual ones. Especially as one of my favourite genres is Sci Fi Fantasy. It's hard enough sometimes with the weird and wonderful place / creature / character names some writers come up with .... I really wouldn't want to have to wade through obscure words as well.

    So after waffling that much, I guess my simple opinion and reply would be:

    Write in a style that's comfortable for you, if you force it - it will just sound false. And write for your target market, but make it easy on them.
    The Sun and The Times may be light years apart in readership, with their Journalists using different actual words (tone / voice style) but they both still only use simple ones. The Sun quotes may "Trill" at you, while The Times ones will "state for you".

    Angel
     
  10. bigSQUISHY76
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    bigSQUISHY76 Member

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    B Vs. S

    As I have stated before I am not all that smart or specifically educated when it comes to the literary arts. However my answer to your questions is pretty simple.

    “Moderation"

    You don't want to write a Dick and Jane book (unless intended) but at the same time you most likely don't want to end up with a text book either. My wife watched the TV series “Bones” if you haven’t seen it watch an episode or two.

    Most of the books I have read the narrators speak relatively clear simple English while some of his characters are fanatical with BIG words. I think the best thing about this is that those particular characters are usually professionals, scientist, or in some sort of specialty field that it is more acceptable or understandable that they speak that way. Not to mention that there is always someone smarter which would mean that there would almost always be someone that would need a little elaboration or clarification in the story giving you a chance to dumb it down. Both expressing and appealing to the intellectuals and the read purely for simple pleasure types of people.

    That’s my Buck and a quarters worth.

    V/R

    BS76
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i love your version of KISS, cog!... and if you don't mind, i'm going to adopt it, since i never liked the 'stupid' part and 'smart' adds immensely [bigish word!] to its good advice value...

    love and grateful hugs, m

    ps: i agree with your entire post on the issue, as i expect you would expect...
     
  12. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Yes, there’s nothing worse than reading a piece and getting the impression someone has simply “gone nuts” with a thesaurus.

    I prefer the simplest word to get the job done. Sometimes it might be a so-called “big word.” Most of the time it won’t be. For example, tonight I couldn’t quite get the right word for a sentence I was editing. I used a thesaurus to help me find the right word . In the end, the right word was simply “nudged.”

    I read a lot of contemporary literary fiction, and find that there are very few “big words.” I think the Keep It Simple and Smart suggestion is the smart way to go.
     
  13. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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  14. SilverRam
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    So are you writing a story or a dictionary? Like others have said, it depends on situation and target audience. Also, you should know exactly how to use a word and it's meaning before you use it.
     
  15. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    I use medium-difficulty words, honestly. I think that middle-ground is a good place to start in this situation. Try to include some "smarty-pants" words here and there, it adds a sense of professionalism, but don't lay on the sesquipidalean locquasciousness so much that the readers start to wonder whether they're reading a story or a medical journal with a torn-out glossary. If you have to look up the definition as you're writing, don't use the word! Please, of course.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Especially if you have trouble spelling sesquipedalian or loquaciousness. :)

    The only reason you should ever use a "smarty-pants" word is because it truly belongs there.
     
  17. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    I had a junior high english teacher, circa 1985, who liked to say, "Why use a fifty cent word when a nickel word will do?" Twenty-five years later, I still remember that and think that it is a pretty good guideline 99% of the time.
     
  18. Forkfoot
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    Forkfoot Contributing Member Contributor

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    What? Really?
     
  19. Suomyno
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    Suomyno Member

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    It really depends on the situation, target audience ect. Obviously, you don't want to bog down the reader with the language. It would do no good to have some of the actual content be lost due to them struggling with the language. But, if indubitably (I know, not the best example, but I'm exhausted) is the right word, I will darn well use it. I think it ultimately comes down to what word best conveys what you want, not what word is big enough or simple enough.
     
  20. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I don't mean to get off-topic, but...evidence? There's no scholarship about him in any of my university's libraries, and only a handful of essays in JSTOR...and his reputation as an author worthy of study is non-existant, at least in my experience...

    As to the original question, Mark Twain said it best, I think: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. If the right word is a simple one, you shouldn't be afraid to use it because it sounds unintelligent, and vice versa.
     
  21. wolfdragon8211
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    wolfdragon8211 New Member

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    Wordiness will kill your writing, Its better to be a simple man who says thing that are easy to understand than an insecure nerd trying to sound smart. When I see big or confusing words I often label the writer a hack who is trying to prove he has more mastery over his than he actually has. The best writing often uses simple but active words. Dull=chew, Good=munch, Wordy= masticate
     
  22. Montag
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    Montag Senior Member

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    Sometimes if it's appropriate for the setting and time period, I may write in the style that a refined gentleman may speak, including unusual words or synonyms, but generally I try to confine it to character speech.

    Also, Malignant Blastoma sounds like some sort of sci-fi death-ray.
     
  23. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    @Cogito
    I think I can safely say most here agree with your alteration of the KISS philosophy. This arises one more question (on the other side of the scale).... When does SIMPLE becomes STUPID? Or, how simple is too simple?

    I liked the popular 'The Alchemist'.... but I didn't enjoy it as much as reading some not-so-popular stories. I suspect this is because the language was too simple.

    @Tamsin
    Can't something aimed at 'well educated people' be written without 'big' words?

    True to yourself: If I start writing with a thesaurus nearby, I get that in such a case I am not being true to myself. But, if I somehow significantly raise my language skill and then write with fancy words I can then safely say I am being true to myself..... but will that be necessarily good writing?

    I am glad you like my work. Thanks.

    @Angelwings
    I can answer that.... (Yes, I am a construction engineer during the day :) ) I hate technical complicated long words.

    @bigSQUISHY76
    I actually watch "Bones" and BIG words are not at all out of place since the chars are all scientists.... actually it makes them more real
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    When you find yourself insulting the intelligence of the reader. However, that is usually less a matter of word choice than of telling the reader things he or she can readily infer without being told.

    Don't dumb it down. Just don't elocute to impress or obfuscate.
     
  25. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    JTheGreat
    @Cogito
    @Suomyno
    @Aaron
    I like Jthegreat's idea, but I also agree with Cog, Soumyno and Aaron... I am torn
     

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