He has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used. – William Faulkner (on Ernest Hemingway)
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. – Ernest Hemingway
It is an argument that has raged between writers, probably for as long as there has been written words: where should we pitch our language, and what is appropriate for our intended readership? In recent times, it feels as though everyone who voices an opinion is encouraging us to simplify our writing. I’ve read many articles and posts which suggest we shouldn’t use words that may distract our readers.
The problem with vocabulary is that everyone’s is different. Two people educated to exactly the same level, in identical subjects, will still have vastly different vocabularies. We are all exposed to new words on an almost daily basis, but whether we choose to absorb or ignore them is a personal choice. As writers we can’t assume that readers will care for our words as much as we do.
I have often wondered if it is because I am a writer that I love words, or if it is because I love words that I am a writer. Either way, I enjoy finding new words, and inevitably want to explore their definitions and their proper usage. If I then put them into practice, they become part of my lexicon.
But even with my affection for increasing my vocabulary, there are limits: if an author sends me to the dictionary three or four times in a novel, I’m happy. The same number of times in each page, and I will start to get irritated. If it’s every sentence, then I’m going to give up – it’s too much to assimilate at one time, so I’m not going to retain the knowledge.
On the other hand, I am just as happy to read a book that never makes me reach for a dictionary. I don’t need to have my vocabulary expanded to enjoy a good story.
The key point here is the writing: if the writing is good, then the vocabulary is immaterial. When the story is engaging, it doesn’t matter whether or not I need to look up some of the words.
But I realise it is not the same for all readers. Just because I don’t object to reaching for the dictionary, it doesn’t mean nobody else will.
I can see merit in both sides of the argument. We have a rich language with a colourful variety of words at our command, so it seems a shame to shy away from Hemingway’s ‘ten-dollar words’ just to avoid distracting your reader. Sometimes using a lesser known word can help with the flow and rhythm of your prose and convey a more accurate meaning. As long as the uncommon word’s definition is understandable from the context, I think the majority of readers will tolerate the distraction, and continue with the story, whether or not they bother with a dictionary.
However, when authors overdo the big words you have to question their motives: are they spending too much time with a thesaurus, looking for alternatives to their over-repeated words, because they are too lazy to rework their phrases? Or are they doing it for effect; in an attempt to show how clever they are? Either way, they risk alienating a large part of their readership.
Conversely, keeping away from unusual words, to avoid distracting your reader, is fraught with problems: it is not necessarily long words that cause confusion. There may be everyday words that leave some of your readers clueless. I have been asked by A-level English students for the definition of seemingly commonplace words such as ‘irk’ or ‘virtue’ and many others that I would have considered to be well within their grasp. If these cause them to flounder, where do we draw the line? Taken to its logical extreme, the only way to ensure all of your readers understand everything, is to reduce your writing to the level of Dr Seuss. Surely we have enough dumbing-down already?
For my part, I will continue to write using the extent of my vocabulary, and words that I think are appropriate to the pace and style of my sentences. I will try wherever possible to keep the meaning clear from the context, but inevitably I will put off some readers. I think it’s a price worth paying.
In the end, if I lose some of my audience because they are intolerant of words such as lachrymose, for example, I’m not going to be tearful about it.