There IS such a thing as too large a vocabulary

I stumbled across a blog post this weekend that reminded me of a person I’d met in an upper level university course a couple of years ago. This person absolutely loved words – the sound of them, the way they looked, their etymology – and who could blame her? I certainly have no room to talk on that score.

This person took a great deal of pride in the diversity of words in all of her writing.  She would sit with a thesaurus as she wrote, being careful not to use the same word twice.  I do this myself many days, when I can’t quite think of the perfect word to convey exactly what I want to say or when I feel I’m being redundant.  My classmate’s goals were a bit different, though.  She enjoyed using either the most obscure version word possible or the one that seemed to have the most flourish, and she spent a distressing amount of of time finding those words.

For example, if she needed to say something that I might express as, “The English language has increased in popularity due to economic and cultural pressure,” this person might write something more like, “The English patois has experienced magnified proliferation owing to pecuniary and cultural compulsion.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these words.  I love words, and I love learning new ones.  But there are several problems with this approach.

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1. Inaccuracy and inefficiency.  Looking at a thesaurus and pulling words that are related to the one you entered often ignores the subtleties of the word’s meaning or the connotations that go with it.  If you are unfamiliar with the word, you can’t be sure it’s absolutely correct for the instance.

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In the above example, “patois” doesn’t have the same meaning as “language” in the sentence. The second sentence also uses more words and takes up more space than the first.  Maybe it’s just my viewpoint as a technical writer talking here, but I believe that clarity, accuracy, and efficiency are every bit as important in creative prose and other forms of writing as they are in technical work.

2. Perception. Your writing is a reflection of yourself, and, whether they intend to or not, people do judge on your writing just as they do your appearance.  More so, probably, because judging based on your writing is socially acceptable.  And using unnecessarily complex language to explain something simple is viewed, like it or not, as pretentious.

Excessively formal wording has, in fact, been used before as a method of controlling who has access to materials. Foucault and many of his contemporaries wrote using obscure words, or in extreme cases, created new ones with no explanation. This was a way to say, like an amusement park gatekeeper, “You must be at least this smart to read this paper.” Speech and writing are used to judge not only intelligence, but also education, which translated to class affiliation.

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It’s not surprising that there can be a visceral reaction to language that seems overly formal. And let’s face it, it just sounds stilted.

3.  Reader Frustration. None of the words I used in my above example were terribly difficult, but if obscurity is a goal, readers are going to have to deal with a lot of words they don’t know. It’s not a bad thing at all to find an unfamiliar word when reading.  However, when every third word is unfamiliar, it becomes difficult to learn the meaning of the new word using context clues.

Pulling out a dictionary for a new word isn’t a bad thing either; but having to have a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other just to get through a page is going to make your reader want to burn whatever you wrote to keep his head from exploding.

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Most moderately experienced writers are already long past this phase, but I’ve run into more than one person lately who, for one reason or another, will not let go of the idea that bigger is always better.  It’s important to remember, though, that writing isn’t about you.  It’s about expressing what you need to say so that others can understand it.

The lesson here: If you want to be read, you have to be readable.

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