My, What Big Words You Use!
By Jeffrey Bishop
Just as grandma’s big eyes, ears and teeth spelled danger for Little Red Riding Hood, conventional wisdom suggests that writers who use big words in their stories risk endangering their readership, by alienating their audiences.
Indeed, in the worlds of both journalism and public relations, the rule is to write to the level of the “lowest common denominator” of your audience — which in itself is an ironic prescription since “denominator,” at five syllables and 11 letters, isn’t exactly discrete.
Today’s paid copywriters typically aim for an 8th grade reading level. Given the state of education today, that isn’t much more advanced than what our parents and grandparents enjoyed in their “Dick and Jane” readers.
Should fiction writers follow the same advice — particularly writers of youth-oriented stories (like those at Scurry Tails)? Do big or advanced words have any place is such stories? Should the best “big word” be replaced with an adequate simple word so as to not flummox developing readers?
I must admit I’m torn on the issue. Accessibility by the broadest swath of readers might suggest lower-level language. But I can also credit the quality of my present vocabulary in large part to formerly unknown words first read in the books I consumed in my youth. For example: I picked up a small but uncommon (and now somewhat anachronistic) word “scowl” from Beverly Cleary’s works.
We’ve used a share of advanced words in some of our stories here, as the following examples illustrate:
– Phosphorescent, from The Secret of the Mud Cave: “We think that they must be some sort of phosphorescent life form.”
– Wunderkind, from Dr. Zombie: “‘There’s one last thing to share with you before your transformation,’ the morbid doctor added menacingly – the charitable wunderkind doctor was no longer in the room.”
– Even this piece — which, granted, is meant more for adult Scurry Tails readers than young ones — uses higher-level words like anachronistic and prerogative.
So what is a reader to do when he or she comes across a big, scary new word?
– In some cases, a vague understanding of the sentence — despite not knowing one of the big words within it — can keep the reader on pace with the story.
– Often, clues from the story’s context can even make the meaning of the word plain.
– When the answer can’t be pulled from the story, moms and dads are often ready with an answer.
– Barring that, there’s always the dictionary. This last option — formerly the most difficult — is not such a problem these days. It’s easier than ever to look up unknown words online — or even within an e-reader: just double-tap the cryptic word in the copy, and a dictionary definition appears on screen, right there within the story.
To take a position on the issue, I suggest that in general, the level of the language used needs to match that of the intended audience, noting that authors are trying to connect with readers through story — they are not Language Arts teachers. At the same time, it’s the author’s prerogative to use the best words for the meaning, tone and poetic effect he or she is striving for — and sometimes these will be big, complex or unfamiliar words. If this occasionally sends a young reader to the dictionary for help, there’s goodness in that — as a secondary function of literature — as well.
What do you think? Are you a writer, and do you consciously think about the difficulty of words that you use? As a reader — young or old — what do you do when you meet a scary new word? Let us know your reaction to this editorial piece in the comments!