Build Your Vocabulary (And Then Don’t Use It)

The other day, as I was about to hand back some lit analysis essays my students had written, I asked them a question that had been on my mind for some time: what do you guys have against the word people?

I had noticed a pattern across their papers that, when discussing characters in books (so, you know, people, for the most part), they would always refer to individuals:

  • “The second section introduces Lutie Johnson, an individual hunting for an apartment.”
  • “Michael shows Adam scenes of the lives of the individuals who will come after him and Eve.”
  • “Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are two individuals who look almost exactly alike.”

Men, women, people – there are plenty of ways you could phrase this, but why individuals?  What does the word individuals do that none of those other words do?  All it does, I tried to explain to them, is make your paper very slightly harder to read by adding a less precise word with several unnecessary syllables.  This was, they protested, the very attraction of the word: because it was longer and more complex, it made them “sound smart.” People sounded so casual to their scholarly ears.  So pedestrian. So ordinary.  Kind of like that poor little neglected pronoun “me.” Yes, I agreed, through slightly clenched teeth, and that’s exactly why you should use it.

But let’s not make this out to be my students’ faults.  Since they were in kindergarten, their teachers have worked diligently to grow their vocabulary.  They took quizzes on the vocab words of the week, got points for finding those words in their books, and sometimes had praise heaped upon them for using “five-dollar words.”  It’s difficult for them to one day look up and be told that they need to take it down a peg.

My policy on “five-dollar words” is as follows: I have nothing against them, when they are used for a good reason.  Sometimes, it enhances your writing to describe the villain’s master plan as diabolical rather than evil, if you want to associate him directly with the Devil and Hell.  Sometimes, it behooves you to give a clever comedian a scintillating wit, rather than just calling her funny.  However, you must ask yourself why you are using the big word rather than the small word.  If the only reason you have is that you want to “sound smart,” put the big word down and back away slowly, because you aren’t helping your cause.

George Orwell, in his rhetorical masterwork “Politics and the English Language,” offers six rules for writers who wish to improve the clarity and correctness of their communication.  Rule Two, our current concern, is “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” The longer the word, the greater risk you run of losing meaning in your sentence, so you must have a good reason – a reason you can explain – for why you need that long word.  And if you don’t have one, you should get rid of it.

Consider a word for which I have developed a deep and overly dramatic loathing: utilize. How I have grown to hate utilize.

According to student essays, authors are always utilizing something (usually a literary device or a poetic technique because this is AP English Literature).  Is there a good reason, I will ask just about every time it rears its uninvited little head, that you need to utilize instead of use here?

Sometimes, utilize is the correct choice: if you are talking about a creative or pragmatic use, the extra practicality and effectiveness that utilize implies can benefit your sentence (“Hannah couldn’t find her hammer, so she utilized the blunt end of a knife.”).  If, on the other hand, you are using utilize as a fancier version of use?  Utilize a scalpel and cut that right the heck out of your sentence.  No five-dollar word for you. Save your money and treat yourself to a cookie or something.

So here’s the deal, my students, and everyone else’s students: to be a clear and effective writer, you should build a big vocabulary.  Your elementary school teachers were exactly right to tell you that.  You should start building vocabulary as soon as you start reading and you should never stop.  Your vocabulary is your writing toolbox; the more tools you have in it, the more prepared you will be for all the jobs that require words.

Pictured: your basic, and most useful, vocabulary

But, just like the tools in your toolbox, there are going to be some tools you pull out more often than other.  A hammer is a versatile tool that will come out for nearly every job. On the other hand, a pneumatic brad nailer is essential for the jobs that require it, but you’re really only going to need it for those specific jobs.  If you pull out your brad nailer to put a hook in your wall, you’re going to get some very funny looks, and if you pull it out to take a measurement, well, that’s just not going to work, is it?

Now imagine that your insecurity with tools has led you to believe that taking out your brad nailer every chance you get makes you “look handy,” and you see what our poor students are dealing with.

A lot of the vocabulary words you learned during those Five-Dollar Word Challenges you might have done in elementary school are like pneumatic brad nailers: every so often, you will use it and use it well, but honestly, it’s going to spend a lot of time sitting in a drawer patiently waiting its turn.  And the more you write, the more you practice – just like if you were using tools – the more likely you are to have a chance to whip it out and show off your skills with it!

For example: there will almost – almost – never be a circumstance under which you need to use the word prevaricator instead of the word liar.  The former means the same thing as the latter, but gets it done with twice as many syllables in a way fewer people recognize.  However, every so often, you might get to write a delightful tongue-tickler like this Associated Press headline from 1998: “A Pedigree of Presidential Prevarication.”  

“A History of Presidents Lying to Us” would mean the same thing, but wouldn’t be quite as…catchy.  Aesthetics matter. The way your writing looks and sounds to the reader matters. Your vocabulary is the lifeblood of your writing, keeping it supple and spry.  Misuse it or abuse it, and it loses its power. Use it well, and you’ll write like a real individual.

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