The Art of Using Big Words Properly
If you’re someone who loves the English Language as much as I do, it can be challenging to know how to create pieces of literature that are both easy to read and sophisticated in their vocabulary. Don’t worry! It’s definitely a good thing that you’re looking into the language more than most. Grammar fascinates you? Discovering new words and the etymology behind them envigorates you? Excellent! I totally understand you! Languages can be exciting – especially when you realise that you can never know every single word. There will always be growing-room, and space to learn and make yourself seem smarter than before.
So let’s imagine that you’ve been reading avidly and regularly, and recently you stumbled across a particularly fascinating word. You get it from context, look it up in a dictionary, ask someone, or a mixture of a few different methods to discover its definition. Now, you’re pretty confident that you know what the word means and how to use it. Great! I wouldn’t blame you if you were eager to jump straight into your work and insert the new vocabulary in as many places as you see fit. After all, as someone who studies a few different foreign languages, I’m more aware than most that the best way to consolidate your understanding of a word and make sure that it sticks in your head is to use it. But should you just use it without thinking about the effect it’s creating upon your work? Certainly not!
You’re probably thinking “what do you mean? Of course, I should use the word if I know how! What else is there to think about?” and my answer to that is a lot. There’s a lot to think about. Way more than you’d imagine – and it’s whether or not you think about the effect your words are having upon your story that can make or break you as a writer.
If you have ventured into the world of my recommendations for you, you’ll have probably realised that Philip Pullman subscribes to the same idea in his book on writing, Dæmon Voices. He calls himself a “vulgar” writer, suggesting that he cares very little for flowery prose and verbose sentences. That’s not to say that he is incapable or reluctant to use less common vocabulary where he sees fit. It’s about making sure that his work is accessible and easy to read so that he doesn’t lose the message or his audience somewhere along the way.
You see, Western society was very class-based in the past – and to some extent, it still is. One of the ways that these class differences are shown clearly and easily is through the “eloquence” of language. The upper-class folk among us will use words that we think are solely reserved for high tea in an old Victorian novel, particularly when they’re around us lowly “peasants”, and they want to remind us of what our “place” is. I’m sure you’ve either been on the giving or the receiving end of patronising remarks thrown around using big words intended to make the victim feel lesser and stupid. I find that I am also guilty of subconsciously turning to big words when I’m debating with someone who doesn’t seem to understand basic common sense. It’s a stuck-up, educated person’s way of saying “I know way more than you do. You’re beneath me.” It’s bad, I know. I need to work on it.
So why would you want to do that to your readers? Why would you want your readers to feel like they are stupid when reading your book? It’s really like filmmaking, to some extent: when an audience is forced to draw their attention to the camera due to terrible angles or movements, they lose all sense of immersion and stop caring as much about the characters and plot as a result. Think of your words at the camera in a piece of writing. If your reader is spending too much time wondering what certain words mean or wondering why you’re belittling or patronising them through your persistent use of big words, they’re not really going to get the chance to care too much about the actual events. That screws you over.
Of course, there are examples of when this kind of thing works for a writer. There are some beautifully written novels that are largely flowery and padded out with the pretentious vocab we usually avoid like the plague. It can work. It’s just a lot more difficult to do in a way that works well. This is especially true when you realise that a lot of more flowery pieces of writing came from times when it was more common to actually speak like that. It’s a lot easier to get pretentious vocabulary on point when you have practice with it in your every-day speech, and the English Language, along with practically every other language under the sun, has evolved massively over the years. We just don’t talk that way anymore. It comes across much more natural than it would for us today!
There are, of course, times when it can come in useful today. Take politicians, for example. You’ve probably noticed that they often enjoy dumbfounding anyone who asks them questions by overusing jargon and making the audience feel stupid. It’s an interesting tactic that enables them to hide the fact that they have no clue what they’re talking about behind words that make them sound like they’re in control. To paraphrase Pullman, complex vocab conceals and hides true intent or meaning. One of the reasons many people I know feel particularly apathetic about politics is because politicians make it seem like politics is above them, inaccessible to the “common people”, something that we can only pretend to understand. It’s a way of making sure they keep control: if they were too transparent with their language, we would quickly catch on to the shady crap that they’re up to and make sure we don’t vote for them again. They would have to make sure they’re actually doing well, God forbid!
If you’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, you’ll understand this a little better than most. Orwell doesn’t try to hide things behind words we don’t understand, but the Party in the story takes this to a whole new level. Newspeak is a way for the government to control how their people interact with each other. If we don’t have complicated words to hide behind, we’d have to be pretty clear about whether we liked something or not, whether we agreed with the Party or not. Good or Ungood. Direct opposites. Nothing to hide. It’s also a Communist regime: people are supposed to be equals – comrades – so making sure they all have access to the same language stops that class divide we were talking about.
Now you’re probably thinking back over your own writing and wondering how many complicated words you need to remove. I mean, what is the point of them anyway if you can’t use them in your own work without making it less accessible and more confusing? Well, I’m here to throw another spanner in the works and make your job just a little more difficult: you shouldn’t be dumbing yourself down for your audience either. That’s just as patronising (if not more so) than including pretension in the first place. Unless you’re writing for very tiny children, you shouldn’t assume that someone can’t figure out a word from context or look it up every now and then. In fact, my biggest problem with the US name change of the first Harry Potter is that it implies that Americans are incapable of facing a difficult word every now and then. British children probably didn’t know what a “Philosopher” was either. We just looked it up or asked.
Also, bear in mind that a lot of people – probably yourself included – read widely partly to broaden their vocabulary. Why would you deprive your readers of a chance to see big words used properly and appropriately? I don’t know about you, but personally, I’d never read a book that I felt didn’t challenge me in some way or another. This can be done by giving me an exciting new premise or storyline that hasn’t been done before; making me look differently at characters that I would usually come to quick assumptions about; challenging my general expectations of the story as a whole; or – surprise, surprise – giving me new words to use and understand. It is our duty to ensure that we make our readers think… just not too hard.
Big words can be an excellent way to explain and describe complicated ideas. Sometimes they’re much more effective and quick to write than the thing they’re explaining. The only thing stopping them from being easy to understand and fun to learn is the writer. Well… maybe the reader a little bit. I mean, you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, after all. However, most of the time, it’s your own attitude towards these words, particularly treating them like they’re hard on purpose and not supposed to be understood by the lowly peasants, that creates the huge barrier between writer and reader.
So how do you strike that perfect balance and make sure that you’re not overloading your audience? Well, I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t tricky. Here are some tips, though, that I’m sure will help you:
Remember that your readers aren’t stupid
I mean, maybe one or two of them are… but as a whole, don’t assume that they’re going to be idiotic. Not only does that give you a really patronising attitude towards them, but it also shows that you don’t really have very high hopes for your own writing. I mean, why would you even want to assume that the people who read the things you produce are going to be stupid? It makes it seem like you don’t think your writing is very good. Aim for the best and expect the best, as it will keep the standard of your work high. If you assume that your writing is going to be read by intelligent readers, it will make you write something worthy of intelligent readers, which will, in turn, be more likely to attract them. As soon as you assume that your audience is full of morons, you’re going to have an excuse to drop the quality. Just as with my post on exposition, you don’t want to risk spoon-feeding your audience too much because you think they’re idiots.
Sprinkle some big words in among the easy words
It’s like the whole “do you want some tea with that sugar” remark. Imagine that your big words are the lumps of sugar: you don’t want a brown mess of sugar with some tea poured over the top. What you should do is make sure that the majority of the words you use are ones that you’re pretty sure your target audience should understand. Sweeten the work with big words. Remember: too much sugar is bad for you.
The benefit of doing things that way is that the reader has a chance to understand what you mean through context. Basically, you add a single new word in every now and then, surrounded by easier ones. That way, your readers can say to themselves: “I understand the rest of the sentence. I guess this word must mean…”. It’s a much more efficient way for people to learn new vocabulary without drawing attention away from the actual narrative.
Remember the tone
You see, when I’m writing these blog posts, I make sure I keep the tone as conversational as possible. Yes, I frequently use words you may not have heard of before… or at least very often. If I’m not careful, that could make you run a mile and never look at my advice again! So, I make sure that my post remains accessible by keeping the tone as consistent and nice as possible. Why does this help? Well, imagine I’m speaking in a language you don’t understand at all. I’m trying to tell you something quite simple, but the language barrier is there, so you have no clue what I’m saying. How would I convey my message to you in a way that transcends language barriers? (Cheeky me, I slipped in the word “transcend” in a way that can be understood from context). Well, we use a few basic things: facial expressions, gestures, common words, and tone. At least when I’ve got that down, you know roughly what I’m trying to say even when a word goes over your head. The same is true of your writing. If you are using complex vocabulary, make sure that all your easier words clearly show what kind of tone you’re trying to capture. Then, your reader will at least know what sort of thing you’re saying.
Make sure you know exactly what the word means
When I say this, I mean properly. Like, completely understand it. No mistakes. If you’re not 100% sure of what a word means – or you only think you know what it actually means – you’re going to simply end up confusing the reader even more. They may have already come across it, or come across it in the future, in a slightly different context which makes them feel out of their depth, unsure or nervous when it comes to using it themselves with ease. You don’t want the reader to feel nervous about the writing! They should feel nervous about actual plot points! If you’re using a whole arsenal of complicated words and throwing them around as if they mean nothing, it can seem like a complete bombardment.
Ask yourself why
This is more important than most people believe. As with most of the things we’ve discussed before, the most important thing to do when deciding to include, or not to include, something in your writing is to make sure that you’ve asked yourself why. Why have you decided to use the more complex synonym instead of it’s more straight-forward counterpart? Does it add something to the story? Sometimes, you’ll actually find that the definition provides more description and intrigue than the single-word, complex jargon. Sometimes it’s better to say “the thought of spiders made him shudder” as opposed to simply saying “he had arachnophobia”. It comes with practice, but eventually, you’ll be able to tell when you should use each one. It actually ties largely into the exposition post, as it involves showing what’s happening using more simple vocabulary, as opposed to telling the audience using a convoluted term.
So yes, maybe it is time to look back over your own writing. Have a long, hard think about the quality. Ask yourself whether you’re being needlessly pretentious and see if you can find ways to resolve that. The most important part of your writing is that the actual prose should be easy enough to understand, regardless of how intricate your plot details are. Think a little about the importance of choosing the right words, because most people seem to forget how essential that is. Above all, make sure that you have as much fun with it as you hope the reader will have.
My personal guideline on using words that are, according to certain bits of “internet wisdom” and such, too big for real people to read: If I use it in casual conversation, or if I use it in writing without having to think about it, it’s natural to me, and therefor I’m not being pretentious when I use it. (By definition, it’s not pretentious if I’m not pretending.)
It is an interesting article. I love it.
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It is important to also make sure you spell your big words correctly. If big words are spelt incorrectly, chances are you’ll lose any respect the reader may have developed for you.
Definitely! Also, it makes it that much harder for them to understand what you’re talking about! 😀