1. WritingNoob
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    WritingNoob Member

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    Question on vocabulary in speech versus writing?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by WritingNoob, Sep 19, 2010.

    hey guys, i was just thinking about this and would appreciate some feedback. i'm reading a book right now and the author says it's generally better to use short, old words, rather using large and multi-syllable words.

    it just seems more impressive to me when people use large words in speech?

    thanks all
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    It largely depends on the audience, for both speeches and writing. For speeches, it might be better to stick with simple words that most can understand. The point of a speech is not to impress people but to get a point across. For example, I think Obama's speeches are usually at the 7th-8th grade level.

    Writing is a bit different. It's hard to gauge the difficulty of a text simply by looking at the vocabulary. Some writers use very simple words and sentences, yet analyzing the texts can be difficult. I keep an audience in mind when I write (in most cases, people like me), so I tend to use words I'm familiar with.
     
  3. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    Book or short story writing is very different from speech. When you're talking to someone, you're frequently doing it because you need to do it for a job -- where complex words specific to your workplace are part of every conversation -- or because you're talking about a subject you're mutually interested in. So multisyllabic words look good when you use them, because you're showing your partners in conversation that you know exactly what you're talking about.

    In writing, you aren't trying to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Instead, you are trying to tell a story -- Interesting Character wants This Neat Thing, and is blocked by the Fascinating Antagonist, while Complications Mess His Life Up. In the end, he Succeeds.

    The story doesn't necessarily call for complex jargon or vocabulary. Sometimes the simple sentences -- "The woman's hand went to the hilt of her knife, and Wez realized with a start that if he didn't play this just right, the city watch would find his body and his head lying in separate alleyways." -- evoke the scene just fine. Those words I used were mostly one-syllable, and the only three-syllable words, realized and separate and alleyways, are ones most readers will be familar with.

    But beginning writers don't know this. Not in their heart and their gut and in the creative side of their brain. So they write paragraphs with "I engaged in many rewarding relationships" when what they mean is "My family and I were close." They use nonspecific long words, when what the story really neads is precise words no matter how impressive or ordinary.

    As a writer, your job is to tell the story while being as true to the core of it as possible. If that means that you use "partake" instead of "eat" because the character is a wealthy guy and his family wouldn't use crude words like "eat" and "drink" when he could instead "partake," "imbibe," "nibble," or "consume," that's fine. It fits the character and the story.

    But don't use "perambulate" for 'walk' if the character is honestly just walking along and thinking. Don't use "he investigated over the vertical margin of the flowering shrub" when you really mean "he peeked over the bush."

    I don't mean that short or simple words are inherently better. I just mean that longer words have sneaky ways of tripping you up. Longer words, ones used less often, sometimes have a connotation you aren't aware of. Sometimes they are used more technically, and will sound weird when thrust into an ordinary everyday situation. And sometimes the longer words would be just as good as the shorter word, but the author had to look up a word in a thesaurus so now the story-thread has been broken, and the author has to find her place again.

    If you stick with simpler words, you'll avoid some of that. It isn't a cure-all, and this advice applies more to people with a poor vocabulary than people with a large vocabulary ... but people with poor vocabularies usually don't know just how few words they know. Better to just write the story, using simple short words when they fit, and the occasional longer word when the story demands it.

    But for goodness's sake, don't use complex words in order to impress people. If you're a fiction writer, your job is to tell a story. Not to be impressive; politicians do that. Just tell the story, as true as you can, and then tell the next story. And the next one.

    Over time, you'll realize that you're using more complex words than you were when you started, because when you work with words your brain adapts and becomes better at knowing just when "fetor" or "odor" should be used instead of "bad smell." But that's in the future. For now, just write -- and when your character is looking over a bush, write "he looked over the bush." Your readers will thank you for it.
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I am confused are you asking about the differences between writing a speech and writing a written piece? Or are you talking about the dialogue/speeches with in a story?
     
  5. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    I like to read books that have good words, but I don't like to read words that sound old and short, and I don't care much to read words that are long. Most of them are words I personally don't understand.

    Try to balance between the two if you want. However, do try to use a vocabulary that all readers can grasp. This would be more readily readable to many of them. Including me :)
     
  6. wavodavo
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    wavodavo Member

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    WritingNoob, a constant in our art is that every direct question about the craft is answered with "it depends."

    I'd like to add my voice to the chorus saying you should write naturally for you and aim your vocabulary at your reading audience. If you don't know what your audience is, aim for the vocabulary used in the stories you like to read that are most like what you want to write.

    There is a difference between the narrator voice and the characters. The narrator should have a consistent vocabulary all the way through. However, the doesn't mean the narrator has to have an elevated way of speaking--take Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: It warn't no slouch of an idea; and it weren't no slouch of a grindstone nuther; but we allowed we'd tackle it.

    Characters, of course, can vary in how they might say the same thing depending on who they are:

    "Don't you get impertinent with me, young lady!"

    "Sass me again, gurl, and you die."

    "Zip it."

    There are good old well worn multi-syllable words, too: determined, encouragement, devastated, thundering. So, don't hold too hard and fast to the "simple word" rule.
     
  7. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is impressive when the words used in speech reflect the Character doing the speaking.

    A uni. professor will have an extended vocabulary. Whereas a five years old child will have a very limited vocabulary.
    A two bit criminal may use a lot of four letter words.
    The vicar's wife and the barmaid will talk completely different.
    It is up to the author to be true to their characters and only put words into their mouths that they themselves would use.
    The reader should be able to get a feel for the character from what s/he has to say.
     
  8. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    A better rule of thumb is to use the language that comes naturally to you.
    The first words that pops up in your mind is the one your unconscious mind thinks fits best. And trust you unconscious is in charge does 99% of the time you communicate, choosing words and sentence structure for you without you and it usually really good at what it do.

    Both "Pretty stone" and "Multifaceted jewel" can be used in a story communicating the same but slightly different things. The times "Pretty stone" comes naturally to you, use pretty stone. The times "Multifaceted jewel" pops up use multifaceted jewel.
     
  9. Lothgar
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    Lothgar Contributing Member

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    In big words:

    The generalized consensus, of those possessed of sophisticated and advanced educational formative years, follows the accepted trends, that for the most part, when laymen engage in an oral enterprise, involved with convoluted vocal communication patterns, it typically results in existing with the beneficiary being the originator's own ego.

    In old short words:

    When some git uses a bunch of big words, he is usually trying to impress the rubes with how smart he is.

    My Opinion:

    I think that normal people fall somewhere in between the two extremes presented in my example.

    I suspect that you may have a greater number of readers be able to understand and follow your writing, if you use smaller and more common words. On the other hand, having your readers need to look up the odd word will increase their vocabulary. The draw back kicks in when your reader has to look up several words in each sentence. You run the risk of laymen getting bored and losing interest in your work.

    I'd advise selecting your wording based on your target audience for your work. Books for children and those just learning to read obviously shouldn't be overly verbose or too heavy handed with complex wording. Technical manuals written for trained field technicians should be accurate and to the point, written with the presumption that the technician already knows the nomenclature of his field of expertise.

    Military manuals are written at the sixth grade level of reading by design. Not only will college graduate military officers have no trouble reading and understanding them, but so will anyone conscripted from the general public that is likely to pass the induction examinations.

    Just my two cents.
     
  10. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    The one rule I always hold to with either writing or reading is don't treat your audience like idiots. My experience with academics is the very best academic will use a varied easy to follow speech pattern, it will not be convulted. I have always been of the opinion that inappropriate use of 'big or fancy words' are usually an indication the person speaking or writing doesn't know what they are talking about, and need to talk over you so you don't know it lol

    I am generalising I do know very well educated intelligent grandiose speakers but to be honest I don't like listening to them.

    Within a book use the speech appropriate - I have a verbose character and a malaprop they use big words.

    I think just use the language you usually use unless the character requires something different.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    noob... if, as i suspect, by 'speech' you really mean 'dialog' in a story, then the words used must fit the character who's speaking... if it's a pompous college prof, then big words would be appropriate... but if it's a kid hanging out on the street, they wouldn't be... get the diff?
     
  12. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    Easy answer is to use the right word. I don't care for work where the author is simply trying to impress everyone with how well he or she has read the dictionary. At the same time, one should not dumb down their work, unless one is a politician making a speech to the American public. Even YA stuff can handle some big words, as long as they are the right words.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If I may interpret for a moment:

    I believe WritingNoob was asking about the use of vocubalary in writing, in contrast with the use of it in (the writer's) conversations.

    I think you have to recognize that conversation is real-time, so your word choices are often less carefully considered than when you are writing.

    However, I, personally, talk much the way I write. In all cases, I take my audience into account, so if I am discussing politics in the local pub, I'm using different vocabulay than if I'm discussing the implementation issues of a software product with my colleaques. It doesn't mean I talk down to by bar buddies, though. I just don't talk over them in an attempt to impress and dazzle them.

    I never talked down to my kids when they were growing up either, and they both have very extensive vocabularies, now that they are adults.

    I use the same care when I am writing. With more time available, I can make somewhat better word choices than when talking in real time, but the words I settle on are not typically any more obscure than my first choice word. Only more apt and accurate.

    In either case, don't use words you don't fully understand. Instead, when you DO encounter a new word, or even one you are a bit hazy about, research it. Begin with a dictionary lookup, but don't stop there! Try to find the word used in context by writers or speakers whose knowledge of language you can trust. That way, you can learn the subtleties of connotation that may be lacking in a dictionary definition.

    This is particularly important if the word is technical, or specific to a trade or profession. Dictinary definitions of such words are notoriously inaccurate.
     
  14. Quorum1
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    Quorum1 Member

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    Don't use 'big' or long words just for the sake of it, use your words to express your meaning. There's nothing worse than reading a book where the writer has clearly thrown in all the big words they know just to sound impressive.
     

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