Some somewhat random thoughts about vocabulary

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about vocabulary size, and relation to reading …

BoyBearTowerOfLondon.jpgI recently ran across an interesting statistic that said that the size of the average American vocabulary is around 15,000 words. Forty years ago, the same source said, the average American vocabulary was 27,000 words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains nearly a quarter million words, but if you add in all the different meanings or uses of words, then the figure rises to nearly 750,000 words.

So what? I am not sure if the numbers above about vocabulary size are correct. I can say, from experience the following things:

  1. When I was in Journalism School, the professor said that modern newspapers target a seventh grade reading level.
  2. Online writing is written at a lower level, typically around a fifth grade reading level.
  3. When I read older “stuff” – whether mystery novels written from the golden age of mystery, or Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Marlowe – I know that I have to look up words.

One of the most obvious sign of a beginning writer is the unrestrained use of “big words.” It is as if they spend half their time looking for the longest word that will replace a common word. I love a good thesaurus, and I enjoy reading the dictionary, but I try not to let it influence my writing too much.

The point of writing, for me anyway, is to communicate with other people. I want to use language that will facilitate that process. And, if a reader has to spend a significant amount of time looking up words, that I am impeding rather than speeding along that communication.

Obviously, a major no-no in writing is the repetition of the same word in the same sentence – or even in near proximity. I am not talking about helping words, but  a word such as facilitate, that will stand out. So in my earlier paragraph, in one sentence I used the word facilitate, and in the next sentence I used speeding instead. I could have cracked open the thesaurus and came up with a nice word like assuage or disencumber but dude, I think the meaning is clear enough without either that extra bit of work, or even pretentiousness.

If you read through your writing, and come across a sentence and say to yourself, “dude, that is good writing,” then you probably need to delete the sentence, and write something that does not stand out quite so much. The point, after all, is to communicate a feeling, a thought, a process, or a specific piece of knowledge about something, and anything that takes away from the message needs to go.

So what do I do with all the cool words I find whilst reading a dictionary, or a thesaurus – I enjoy them in private. They become my own guilty pleasure – sort of like smoking a cigar, but without all the smell and ash.

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