Sunday, October 4, 2015

In Defense of Big Words (and small ones, too)

 “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” [William Faulkner about Ernest Hemingway]

 “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” [Hemingway to Faulkner]

     One thing that I’ve discovered being a writer is that there is so much conflicting advice on what makes “good” writing. One of those endless debates is on big words. Big words. What a funny, ironically simple description for a category of language which includes gems like “supercilious” and “phantasmagoria.”

     There are some people—many people, in fact—who are convinced that simple language is best, and using long, descriptive words is either pretentious or simply out of vogue. “People don’t understand what you mean,” they say. "No one talks that way anymore." 


     Well, I don’t know about you, but when I first started reading on my own there were a lot of words I didn’t know. After all, an eight-year-old doesn’t have the most sophisticated vocabulary.  However, it was through reading those unknown words that I learned them: either because it sent me to the dictionary or because I had enough context information to figure it out. Using an occasional large word—yes, even a word that might puzzle the average reader—is not, in my mind, a crime.

"And people laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven't you?" -Anne of Green Gables

     It is possible, of course, to go overboard with this. I really hope I don’t have to tell you that four three-syllable, uncommon words in a sentence (or sometimes even a paragraph) is too much. And simply replacing every other word with a thesaurus search is not best, either. *shudders* If you don't know what a word means, don't use it.

     However, I've also seen people confused or annoyed by "sophisticated" language that I didn't know was considered such because I or my friends/family actually use it on a regular basis, or because I've read so many classics that I sometimes forget people today talk a little differently.

     So how do you balance language? How do you learn when to use “good” and when to use “virtuous?” It takes time and practice and experience, I suppose. For my own part, I simply use the words that I mean. Sometimes, there’s a large word that means exactly what I need; sometimes, there’s a small, seemingly insignificant one that works better instead. It all depends upon the situation, and if it’s in dialogue, upon the character who says it.

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” – C.S. Lewis

     This quote describes writing so perfectly. (Then again, it’s C.S. Lewis, so what do you expect?)

     I love words. I love big words, words I’ve never heard before with meanings so beautiful I have to write them down so I can re-read them later. But my love of large, unusual words is overshadowed by an even greater literary love, that of precision.  The precision of language. (I know—maybe it’s best not to quote The Giver in this instance. But it’s true.)

     At first glance, the C.S. Lewis quote might seem to favor smaller, more common words. It doesn’t. Rather, he is saying not to use big words inappropriately, because then when you do legitimately need a particular, more intense word, you’ve already used it before with a different connotation.  If you are forever describing mundane, inconsequential  things as “fabulous,” and “amazing,” then the words lose their true meaning. (Really, isn’t that exactly what’s happened to the word “awesome?”)

     I love it when there are words with definitions that are exactly what I mean. Love is a beautiful word, of course, but I’ve always preferred the Greek word(s). After all, the word’s rather broad in English, isn’t it? I mean, you can use the word “love” to describe your relationship with your husband, your cat, and chocolate cake. Obviously, they take on different meanings in context, but a little bit of the true meaning is still lost, and in modern times, our version of love is very skewed in part because of the word’s very nebulousness.

Agape (unconditional love)
Phileo (platonic, affectionate love)
Storge (familial, friendship love)
Eros (romantic/sexual love)

     I admit I’m the type of person to shamelessly throw foreign words into my writing when English fails me. Not that I do it often (that would probably become annoying) but I do do it.

     I think one thing that bothers me about most modern authors is that they don't seem to even try to use less common words. There's no variety in their descriptions. Incidentally, it's also one of the (many) reasons I hate swearing, in both the written language and in speech. Honestly, it does not seem "adult" to me to use cursing, especially in excessive amounts. Take note tumblr and facebook ranters: if all you can do to express your emotions is use the same four-letter word over and over again, it gives me the impression of someone who either has the emotional maturity of a four-year-old throwing a tantrum, or someone with a sadly unimpressive grasp on the English language.

quite right

     It may sound harsh, but it's true. However, there are some gems to be found in modern culture. Language that is precise, witty, or sometimes simply unusual can truly add to dialogue and description. There are readers out there (besides myself!) who appreciate language that's bit more complex.  It's one of the reasons I love films from the 30s and 40s, because they often have fabulously snappy dialogue. And another thing you'll notice about these films is that the humor uses both unusual, sophisticated language and simple, uncomplicated words with equal ease. Their wordplay is delightful.
Also, Cary Grant films are always worth watching, if only because of his facial expressions.
     So what’s my writing advice? Just write what fits. Not, of course, that I'm some grand expert. I know that I've failed in this area, using "very" when I meant "infinitely" and "infinitely" when I meant "very." I've even used words that I later realized I used incorrectly. (It's funny how often we take the meanings of certain words for granted) I'm also fond of hyperbole and gross understatements, so that makes it even a bit more tricky, because people don't always understand what I mean...even if I do.
"A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist." -Vladimir Nabokov
     Don't be afraid to use big words. But don't be discouraged from using small ones, either. In my personal opinion, good writing uses both.


Zoë said...

Excellently well-writ. :]

Jennifer Wand said...

Awesome! (Couldn't resist) I heartily agree with you.

Madeline Osigian said...

Ah! Yes yes yes yes! I totally agree. This is the best post about writing I've read in awhile. And thanks for The Giver reference. :)

Natalie said...

Ahh, this was such a good post, Hayden! I agree with it 100% and thank you for so many wonderful quotes! More than a few that you used ended up in my collection I keep in a word document. :)
I loved--hmm, wait...greatly enjoyed your mention of movies from the 1930's and 40's. My family watches so many from that time period and there are so many great comedic and witty scenes from them-WITHOUT crudeness, inappropriateness, or bad language-which seems very prominent in modern comedies.
This post was definitely an encouragement to me to always be searching for new and exciting words instead of continually using the overused ones-and to use the right words when describing things! ;)

Kelsey Carnes said...

Ahem. Suddenly feeling convicted about my excessive use of "awesome". haha

As usual, excellent post. :)

Melinda Janelle Delamarter said...

Arsenic and Old Lace...yes, wordplay and Cary Grant. I must say that this movie makes me insanely happy.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Hi Hayden,

I was delighted to read your impressions on the use of swearing in books. I have long felt something of the same sort and reading your perspective gave me an expanded idea of the subject. Thanks.
I grinned to see what you had to say about the word awesome! My theory is that in another fifty years, the word 'great' will mean a bad occurrence.

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