Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s vocabulary

with 2 comments

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

A few days ago, I took an online quiz designed to test your vocabulary. You start by ticking off a list of words of varying difficulty whose definitions you think you know, from “midget” to “inveigle,” and then work your way through a series of more exotic creatures: “tenebrous,” “portmanteau,” “embonpoint,” “terpsichorean.” (Note that the entire test is conducted according to the honor system, and there’s no way of verifying whether you only think you know what a word really means.) I ended up ranking somewhere in the ninetieth percentile, which is pretty good, but with the following caveats: 1. English is the only language I know well. 2. I studied Latin and Greek in college, and even though I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, it gives me a definite edge for words like “hypnopompic” and “uxoricide.” 3. I write for a living, which means that the English language is the equivalent of my professional vocabulary. When you factor in the technical terms and phrases acquired in the course of learning any complicated trade, the working language of a doctor or engineer is probably just as large, and arguably more useful.

In fact, for most writers, a large vocabulary can be as much of a hindrance as a help. For every author like Cormac McCarthy, who rightly takes enormous pleasure in digging up obscure, vivid, evocative words, there are a dozen others who would be better off restricting themselves to the words on the first page of that test. A writer who sprinkles the page with the likes of “terpsichorean” had better have a sensational ear; otherwise, it’s a mark of frigidity, of showing off in tangential ways at the expense of the flow of the narrative. Which doesn’t imply that a writer doesn’t need an extensive vocabulary, or that he needs to avoid words that might send readers to a dictionary—it only means that he needs to exercise discretion and good taste when it comes to bringing it into play. And it’s impossible to make those kinds of judgment calls without an extensive storehouse of uncommon words at your disposal, which allows you to drill down into the nether regions of the language on the few occasions when it’s really necessary. For a writer, having a big vocabulary is a little like knowing karate: you learn it so that you’ll never need to use it.

Illustration from the Golden Book Animal Dictionary

So what words does a writer need to know? Nouns and verbs, above all, and particularly the proper names of everyday objects: furniture, clothing, architectural elements, plants and trees, body parts, modes of transport, and whatever technical vocabulary the story requires. For a thriller writer, this means the routine jargon of law enforcement and forensics; in fantasy, the names of weapons and armor; in science fiction, the language of physics, biology, and any number of other fields, used only when necessary to clarify the action. In practice, I find myself consulting the dictionary less often than reference works like The Ultimate Visual Dictionary; The English Duden, with its lovingly detailed and annotated illustrations of everything from factory floors to barbershops; and The AIA Guide to New York City and other locations, a wonderful source of descriptive material for real places and buildings. Again, though, the point isn’t to interrupt the narrative for a lengthy digression on architecture, but to know that the information is there, available if you need it, even while it remains safely in the background in the meantime.

In general, however, the only real solution is to read and write endlessly, and to treat words both as valuable possessions in their own right and as means to a larger view of the world. John Gardner’s advice here, which is brilliant, is to go page by page through the dictionary, making a list of all the common words that you don’t use on a regular basis, which not only extends your lexical range but broadens the universe of actions and situations that you can readily describe. I’ve never gone quite as far as this—like most writers, I actively add words to my vocabulary only according to the demands of a particular project—but I probably should. A big vocabulary is useful to the extent that it encourages you to see things, both in the world around you and your own imagination, that only become visible once you know their names. And this implies that in the long run, the best way to expand your vocabulary is to broaden the range of written experiences you’re trying to evoke. Whenever you write about a subject or way of life you haven’t explored before, you’ll find yourself seeking out the words that the action itself demands—and once you’ve acquired the words you need to tell the story you have in mind, they become a part of you forever.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2014 at 9:27 am

2 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Disorganized Musings and commented:
    A really good reason as to why I’m trying to make an effort as to extend my vocabulary. Unfortunately, unlike Gardner, I have no time to go through a dictionary. I suppose I’ll have to save that for a summer project.


    January 16, 2014 at 10:33 am

  2. I often find myself recently grasping for something just outside the borders of my vocabulary and growing frustrated. It’s as if some of my words are hidden behind a net curtain in another room. Although terpsichorean is definitely not there, don’t need to check. :-)


    January 16, 2014 at 11:02 am

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