25-cent words for 5 cents

by limebirdkate

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

William Faulkner speaking of Ernest Hemingway

There is a good debate among writers and readers alike about vocabulary. Do big words improve the content, or do they obscure it?

When Rinaldo in my writing group used the word “peculate”, members of the group circled the word in a mad frenzy. No one knew what it meant, and this was a problem for them. I didn’t know what the word meant either, but two things happened for me in this incident: One, I’m one of those readers who enjoys opening up a dictionary. Two, I figured out what the word meant simply by the context.

The argument became one that matters beyond personal preference. Why is it a problem if you stumble over a big vocab word?

Well, if it takes you out of the story then that’s a pretty dire problem (as it did for the other members in my writing group). But what if you can figure out the meaning of the word simply by reading through the sentence, or the graph, or the scene (as happened for me). Does that matter?

A popular journalism tip goes something like this, “Don’t use a 25-cent word if you can use a 5-cent word.” (All you journalists out there, feel free to correct me!) Meaning, don’t choose a descriptive word or phrase that is not used much in normal speech when you can use an equivalent word that everyone knows.

I guess I feel two ways about it. While you want your words to be interesting and clear, you also don’t want to be talking down to the reader.

To help you decide if it’s safe to use big words, or how often to use them in your writing, I advise you to research your audience and books in your genre. You need to know whether your level of vocabulary is comparable to other authors in the genre you’re writing. You don’t want to stand out as being an insufferable writer, but you want to be an engaging, vivid writer.

And while you’re at it, if anyone knows a 5-cent word for ‘jet’ would you let me know?

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30 Comments to “25-cent words for 5 cents”

  1. I am quite similar to you Kate, I’m not adverse to opening up my dictionary to check out a new word, but in a text, I find it a bit of a stumbling block. Unless the word fits into your text, I don’t see the point of using big words simply for the sake of it.

    I definitely agree that it depends what type of book you’re writing, as you need to gauge what type of language they are going to be used to.

    Ah, that journalism quote I have definitely heard, (obviously a little different as we don’t have cents here in the UK), but we were always taught to try and be as concise as possible. However, I came from an English Literature AND Journalism background, so I find it very tricky sometimes to differentiate between the two. Literature you generally bulk out your writing and use descriptive language, whereas Journalism is very ‘to the point’.

    So, to sum up, I think in most cases they obscure it. Not all of your readers are going to be happy that they have to stop to check out what a word means. They could end up losing their flow of reading which no one likes. This is definitely a balancing act of doing a lot of research into your target audience but then trying not to talk down to them and be patronising.

    Great post Kate, as always, I really enjoyed reading it!

    PS – Jet as in ‘jet past’ or as in a plane? 🙂

    • Hi Beth,

      You bring up a really good point regarding the differences between journalism and english lit. They are two different animals with two different objectives. Here again, I think a decision would boil down to your audience and what they want to read.

      PS-Jet as in plane 🙂

  2. Well, I’ve always thought one of the benefits of reading is to learn new things. So if I hit a word I’ve never heard of before, I look it up or try to figure it out. I think there is sometimes a time and a place for big unknown words though – and if every other word or sentence is like that I can see putting the book down in a heartbeat!

    • Hi Laura,

      Good point, to read is to learn. We don’t get much out of reading something if all the words are geared towards twelve-year-olds.

      Definitely, if a passage is filled with big, unknown words I think it would be a turn-off to anyone.

      If you’re going to go fancy, at least make sure the context of the sentence or graph helps define it.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. This happened to me with a beta reader on the word “anomalous.” She didn’t know what it meant, but she figured it out from the context of a few lines of dialogue. (Yes, a character spoke it – but he’s a crime-scene analyst. It’s in his everyday vocabulary.)

    I’d hate to think people reading a novel would quit because of one word like this. But I agree it’s best not to use too many. I suspect readers would be put off by running to the dictionary every few pages even with a literary work. It would be an interesting study to compare the vocabulary of a 21-year-old today with that of a 21-year-old in 1940 or 1970. I think there would be a significant difference. And that’s another factor in understanding your audience and genre.

    It makes me admire those writers who can appeal to wide audiences of varying ages, cultural backgrounds, education levels, etc. That is a rare talent!

    • Hi JM,

      You bring up some awesome points. Dialogue should be the exception. I think it makes perfect sense if characters use words that aren’t a part of a reader’s daily language but is a part of theirs. I think that is part of the world-building/setting in a work of fiction.

      These days, people have less patience (esp. when comparing by generations) and fewer people today are willing to take the time to check a dictionary as opposed to people 20 years ago. And you’re right, a 21-year-old of today is not going to have the same range of vocabulary as a 21-year-old back in the fifties.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. As you said, it’s all about the audience. I don’t mind the occasional highbrow word and I’m all too willing to figure out from context what it means, but when you trip over them repeatedly it diminishes the reading experience.

  5. I judge my use of vocabulary in my writing by whether a well-educated person would be likely to know a word. I consider anomalous perfectly acceptable, but peculate is unacceptable. I have a very large vocabulary, but didn’t recognize it as having anything to do with the sound of rain. In fact, it doesn’t. It refers to money, and its embezzlement or theft. I don’t understand why you overlooked that in your discussion, especially if you went to the trouble of looking it up.

    There are instances where I wouldn’t use a word like anomalous because it wouldn’t fit the person or the scene, but I do write for people who are educated enough not to require talking down to.

    • Hi Catana,

      You’re right, when we choose words we must make sure we’re using them correctly.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Did he mean “percolate” maybe?

    I used a ton of big/obscure words in my NaNoWriMo entry last month, to the point of just copy-pasting from a thesaurus at times. But I think (hope) that it fit the feel of the story.
    We’ll just have to let the masses decide some day!

    • Hi Kaiser,

      Thanks! I just realized I omitted a transitional graph in my post. Aack. Anyway, yes, I think in general if the words are appropriate to the feel/flow of the story then using them should be acceptable.

  7. I didn’t know that of Hemingway – that was interesting. It makes me wonder, have I ever had a reader reach for a dictionary? I remember reading Norman Mailer – and I NEEDED a dictionary! But still a good read.

    My feel is that if you could understand ‘peculant’ by its context, then that’s the work of a good writer. It’s a word I don’t know, no, but he obviously chose it because it SOUNDED/FELT right – that’s why I choose words, and that’s why I put commas where I do, etc. It FEELS right. I think it’s fine to reach for a dictionary while reading – but just not every paragraph.

    A great post – really worthwhile 🙂

  8. I’ve nominated you for a Liebster award, because I had to share you

    http://julietkachyk.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/i-have-a-fabulous-fan/

  9. I’m a word nerd and love learning new words. A rich vocabulary is a must, but using obscure words can make a person seem erudite and stuffy. Words can draw in a reader or distance a reader.

    I like choosing the very best word for what I’m trying to say and balance that with not befuddling the reader/listener so they are now lost in trying to figure out that one word and lose the rhythm of the story. It’s a high-wire act, for sure. But that’s the challenge and fun of writing. if it was easy, everyone would be doing it! 😉

    • Hi Lorna,

      Absolutely, the choice of words is as important as choosing how to structure your story. You definitely don’t want to lose readers for the sake of knowing big words!

      Thanks for chiming in!

  10. In the Opposite of Fate, there is a bit where Amy Tan talks about finding her voice. Before she did, she jokes about writing phrases like “my mental quandary in its nascent state”.

    There is definitely a line between stories that give the reader something to think about it (be it the plot, an idea, characters, a new word or something else) and stories where the author is just flexing their vocab muscles.

    Words are tools that enable us to tell stories and I always enjoy learning new words, especially from context, but there’s no need to use a power drill if a hammer and nail will do – and there are times when a hammer and nail aren’t enough. So I guess the challenge is knowing which tool to use and when.

    • Hi Buddhaful,

      I didn’t know that about Amy Tan. I think that’s awesome. I also love your analogy–power drill vs. hammer and nail.

      Thanks for commenting!

  11. For me it’s less about big words/simple words than it is about the right word. If there’s a big word that expresses exactly what you want to get across and will ultimately help the reader understand, go for it! For the most part, smaller words do just fine, but occasionally you need something more “impressive” and specific.

    • Hi Annie,

      Yes, I think you’re onto something here. Nothing should be wrong with using big words as long as they are appropriate to the style and flow and voice of the material.

      And I think there is the confusion between big vs unusual. Just because it isn’t used in everyday language doesn’t make it a “stuffy” word. There is a time and place for all words.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  12. I agree with anniecardi on this: it’s all about using the *right* word.

    Writing good, clear, simple English is an extremely important skill. In fact I would say in many situations it’s harder to write in a simple, straightforward manner than it is to write with an abundance of needlessly complex, difficult words. I’d even go so far as to say such an approach stinks of arrogance on the part of the writer. Just because you can write like that, doesn’t mean you should!

    • Hi Mike,

      Exactly. There is no need to show off your vocab knowledge to prove you’re a talented writer. Your material would be proof enough. A “big” word is only going to stand out, so you better make sure it’s necessary!

      Thanks for commenting.

  13. All for introducing an uncommon word that I feel comfortable with as long as we don’t litter the text with them. I love to learn new words but only indulge them when they are crying out and appropriate to be used.

    • Hi Claire,

      Me too. I love unusual words when they add texture and depth to the content. Going overboard with them is unnecessary and tends to make me feel like I’m reading a foreign language! haha.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. Providing the word is in character and context, it’s good writing. Part of the joy of reading is expanding your world and learning new things.

    • Hey snaggle,

      I think so, too. If I trust the author and know that he/she is not writing to intimidate me but rather to enrich my reading experience then I am willing to go along on the journey.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  15. “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” – Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner.

    Writers get bitchy in arguments, don’t they?

    • Yay, thank you William! I knew there was a quote out there that lashed back, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find it. You get virtual Limebird hugs for this little gem!

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