1. Travalgar

    Travalgar Active Member

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    Vocabulary "hacks" for the lexically challenged

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Travalgar, Oct 31, 2021.

    English is not my first language. Nonetheless, I've been consuming written media forms in English ever since I was sitting in primary school; big thanks to video games with respectable amounts of storyline and dialogues (otherwise known as "role-playing games" for all you who had no idea what I was talking about), and then the internet. Both of these channels provided me the exposure to the popular form of the language I would otherwise simply not have without (the English taught in schools where I live wasn't sufficient for creative purposes).

    As a writer, though, oftentimes I find my resources lacking. I could safely and without conceit and arrogance claim that I have a better vocabulary than my peers. I wonder where those boxes and shelves of words went when I'm writing, though, because most of the time I feel that the word I picked for a sentence seemed "off" and "didn't really belong there", and that there would be a better word suitable for this particular use.

    I was told that even writers with English as their primary language face this problem. That's why we have thesauruses. I find myself making use of Google's synonym search more and more as I mature, as well. Is that normal, as a writer? I was still slightly under the impression that writers are supposed to be proficient in their use of words to convey ideas and craft stories, and overuse of "hacks" like online thesauruses actually hinted at a weakness in my skills.

    Can you tell me your experiences with choosing words for your writings? Do you have problems with it? How has word choice affected you as a writer? What other "hacks" did you use if there's any (provided you're also willing to share your super-secret forbidden techniques with me, of course!). Let's discuss.
     
  2. evild4ve

    evild4ve Senior Member

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    A personal question, but did you need a thesaurus to write that? At all? If not, you have a perfectly good English vocabulary and there's an argument for sticking to it and saying things the way you say them, rather than reaching around for more or "better" words.

    The role of thesauruses is really minor compared with what we have gotten from speaking with the audience the book's for, and reading their books. So that we have a living, current vocabulary from a real dialect-mileu, the one we're part of. And it's two-way: sat in a pub or equally here on an internet forum we can change what the words in the thesaurus mean: we can move words into and out of the thesaurus altogether. And enhancing a vocabulary mightn't mean knowing more words - it might also involve discarding words people don't like anymore (hence massive bestsellers often seeming to have a strangely truncated vocabulary).

    They can be pernicious things, self-serving.
    I found a perfect word for big:
    Brobdingnagian
    (it was perfect in context of an allegorical macrocosm)
    I hadn't known it before - it's the opposite of Lilliputian, coming also from Gulliver's Travels. But as a result of writing with a thesaurus, I force the reader to read with a dictionary (or more likely to ignore me :)). Both reader and writer are pulled out of our shared dialect and forced to pay rent to parasitic linguists and lexicographers. Things were better when we said "Ug" and "Chak" and didn't have kings who needed us to understand tax paperwork.

    But a trick - I'd suggest to consciously decide the dialects within English, for the narration and each character's spoken and mental voices. And then figure out what authors (and films and music and youtube) they would be immersed in, and use them for reference. It's laborious, but sometimes it finds gems that aren't in the thesaurus - words that were only around for a year or two in a local area and therefore didn't get catalogued (or are now left behind in some earlier edition). And it's giving them in real context.

    Also coinages - make up a word that sounds right.
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2021
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  3. N.Scott

    N.Scott Active Member

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    ESL person here. The most important thing I learned is that you mustn't let this insecurity bother you too much. It's not that big of a 'weakenss' as you might think it is. In fact, it could be beneficial to you in that it forces you to be creative with the words you do know.
    Of course, this is not to say you shouldn't seek to expand your vocabulary. The best 'hack' I found so far is reading. Reading in your preferred genre is crucial. Collect words you don't know in one folder; put the more frequent ones in another folder; sort those out according to part of speech and pay extra attention to verbs and nouns since they create the images in our heads.
     
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  4. SapereAude

    SapereAude Contributor Contributor

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    Of course we face that problem. I would have to look up the statistic, but it's a known fact that one's passive vocabulary (words you recognize when you hear or read them) is much larger than one's active vocabulary (the words you use when speaking or writing). As you mentioned, this is why we have thesauri -- to help us in those inevitable moments when we know there's the perfect word to use but it simply won't pop into conscious memory.

    My view is that the perfect word in those situations often isn't an exact synonym, which is why I don't use dictionaries of synonyms (which is what many books claiming to be thesauri actually are). This is why I currently have on my desk six (6) real Roget's thesauri -- the ones in two parts, with an index in the back and the word lists in the front. The two-part layout makes it much easier to find words that are related shades of meaning but not direct synonyms.

    I once had a dictionary of synonyms. I don't see it on my reference shelf, so I have to conclude that after years of finding it to be absolutely useless I must have finally thrown it away.
     
  5. Travalgar

    Travalgar Active Member

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    No, I didn't use a thesaurus (online or otherwise) to make that post. Thanks for the reassurance! I think writing forum posts for real-world discussions came easier for me because that's what I'm used to. But believe me, when I'm writing, it seemed... I don't know what's the word for it; different? I think I've been trying too hard to make my narrator voice sounded "not me".

    Having read Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Why haven't I thought of it that way before?

    Finally, a scientific justification for what has been bugging me for so long!
     
  6. Catriona Grace

    Catriona Grace Search and rescue Contributor

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    Browsing is my favorite way to use a thesaurus. I find all sorts of cool words that I can pull up for later use. Alas, I still haven't managed to justify using absquatulate or impignorate in a sentence.
     
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  7. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Currently Reading::
    "Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem
    Here's my advice . . .

    You have to establish your voice and tone before the first page is done. If you haven't shown that you might use a more complex vocabulary by that time, then it will always seem out of place when you try it out. That applies to everything, really. Humor, imagery, metaphor, etc. It needs to slip into that first page. You're kind of setting the stage for later structures. The two most important goals for that first page are creating the MC and establishing your voice. You're showing the audience exactly what they're in for. They have to believe in the MC and they have to trust your approach. Then you lead them onward into the plot.

    Every sentence can be made complex in three ways, through either grammar, vocabulary, or style. If you elevate one, it's best to keep the other two elements simple. Since you're asking about using a complex vocabulary, make sure the style and grammar are dead simple in those lines. (Not always, but typically, as a baseline.)

    When we think about a word's complexity, we're really talking about its usage frequency. A rare word is complex because it's unknown. Maybe it's only understood in context. There is one other quality that makes the word awkward, and that is its length. A short rare word is better than a long rare word. It's like you're treating a word as a sentence in miniature and simplifying its other aspects. I'm not saying that the long rare words can't be used, just that those are the harder ones to fit. You have to be very delicate when placing them in a sentence. Keep the sentence extra simple to hold them.

    For example, using McCarthy as an example. "Flense" and "chine" are genius and easier to place than "fulgurite." He of course uses all three (and many, many others that are trickier) but you can feel how the first two are easier to place. They're less awkward.

    flense: to strip away skin
    chine: the spine of an animal pushing through flesh. Use this metaphorically: The chine of the Sierra Madres hunched across the dusty horizon.
    fulgurite: lightning fused sand​

    Right? Good luck using fulgurite metaphorically. Anyway, IMO, the first two are easier to fit into a sentence, and it's because they're short, one-syllable even.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2021
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  8. SapereAude

    SapereAude Contributor Contributor

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  9. ShaunaGarcia

    ShaunaGarcia Banned

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    Nice Post and very informative
     
  10. Night Herald

    Night Herald Seeker after nothing Supporter Contributor

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    Currently Reading::
    "Fall of Babel" by Josiah Bancroft
    I have a pretty good passive vocabulary, for a foreigner. My active one is... smaller. I have a harder time reaching for the right words than I used to, on account of I read and write less. So yeah, I use a thesaurus where needed (when I know there's a perfect word to convey the exact nuance I'm looking for, but I just can't remember the shape of the blasted thing). A lot of the words I "know", I know on a very intuitive level, i.e. I know kinda, sorta what it means, I get it in context and can even use it in a sentence, but I couldn't possibly define it for you. Sometimes, of course, what I think I know is just plain wrong. So, I probably spend more time with the dictionary than with the thesaurus. Just to be sure, you understand.

    As for word choice... I would say I definitely have some problems there. It can be challenging, especially when it come to a battle between "this really neat polysyllabic leviathan that rolls so well off the tongue" and "the words the character would reasonably know and use". I have a bad habit of bending characterization or even plot to the shape of whatever words I would like to see on the page, which is a tendency I haven't even consciously acknowledged before now. Holy heck, what a revelation. So yeah, I guess that at least occasionally I tend to think words and prose first, story second. It's like I set out to curate an artisanal word buffet, and then try to fashion a vessel which might reasonably contain it. I guess that's not a great way to work, and I should probably lay down some judicious upheaval on the misbegotten beast that is my creative process.

    I fully admit that I sometimes choose a word not because of what it means, or even how it sounds, but because it has an especially sexy silhouette. I'm sick and I need help.

    P. S. I did not use a thesaurus for this, though I double-checked the spelling of one or two things.
     

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