Vocabulary Matters

Discussion about the various aspects of the writing craft.

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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Proofrdr » 15 Feb 2013, 00:26

Baker wrote:We both decided that vocab selection really is important in both dialogue and narrative.


Amen, sisters! A great story with terrific characters will fall flat if the diction isn't equally great and terrific. While diction is simply word choice, there is nothing simple about it. Words have a direct, specific meaning, a denotation, but they also have an implication of meaning that goes beyond the denotation, a connotation.

Good writers attend to the connotation of the words they choose. Especially, they can use the connotative nuance in dialog to develop their characters. Dickens was a master of this. By the end of any of his tomes, if you paid attention, you could identify the speaker from a list of random quotes.

I used the word mistake to illustrate the importance of diction to my students.
A mistake is a/an:
misjudgment, misapprehension, misstep, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, oversight, slipup, flub, bobble, snafu, foul-up, gaff, goof, screw-up, f**k-up.

I'd ask which words they'd use to use to describe their mistake to their boss, their parents, a co-worker, a friend? What would it say about them if they described the mistake to their boss as a f**k-up?

Good diction is precision in writing. It includes finding the one word that says three, reducing phrases to single adjectives and adverbs, reducing clauses to phrases. It is compact while containing an explosion of meaning. I think the choice of words is incredibly important.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Baker » 15 Feb 2013, 06:41

Always nice to have the editor agree with us mere writers on something. :-)


One of the aspects of English I love is the breadth and depth of the language. You can find a word to mean exactly what you want. The downside to this is not using one that is so obscure your reader doesn't have a strong chance of knowing the word.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Proofrdr » 15 Feb 2013, 13:32

The downside to this is not using one that is so obscure your reader doesn't have a strong chance of knowing the word.

True, but you cannot write to the lowest level of understanding or all books would read like The Three Bears. ;) Thankfully, there's always context to help the reader.

I also agree with you about the breadth and depth of English. I think this is particularly so because of the influence that so many other languages had in its formation. What developed from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes was deepened by the Romans, and further enriched by the languages of all the countries brought into the Empire. It's also a language particularly adept at assimilating new words...probably because it's not a highly inflected language with rigid endings.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Proofrdr » 16 Feb 2013, 00:53

I just have to add that I love the English language! It has so much richness, not only of meaning, but also in its auditory qualities. The natural rhythms and cadence of it and the wonderful phonetic intensives that meld sound and meaning...these are incredible tools for the poet, but also for the writer of prose.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Baker » 17 Feb 2013, 08:10

Agree! English is awesome. Not, mind you, that I am saying it's better than any other language. I'm expressing my love and fascination with the only language I know. I fully expect other languages to be as loved by their users.


Proofrdr wrote:True, but you cannot write to the lowest level of understanding or all books would read like The Three Bears. ;)

I sincerely hope I don't do that, but you simply can't turn a book into an exercise of showing off your vocabulary. Early on in my writing, I used the word "parterre". It was absolutely and utterly the perfect word that conveyed exactly the mental image of overly formal gardens, period, etc, but I quickly found out thanks to an online crit group that a lot of people don't know what it means. so, parterre is my caution word to myself about getting too outre with words. (Okay, I know it's not actually an English word, but still...)
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Nurse Jo » 17 Feb 2013, 09:43

lol English stately homes often have parterre style gardens. So that maidens could waft around gathering lavender and herbs.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Proofrdr » 17 Feb 2013, 13:56

Baker wrote:...you simply can't turn a book into an exercise of showing off your vocabulary

I absolutely agree. That makes for awkward, and sometimes, ridiculous writing. But, if you can manage not to force the surrounding context, you can still use less known words effectively--just not constantly.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby wildlx » 17 Feb 2013, 23:25

Baker wrote:Agree! English is awesome. Not, mind you, that I am saying it's better than any other language. I'm expressing my love and fascination with the only language I know. I fully expect other languages to be as loved by their users.

Oh, they are ;-).


Baker wrote:I sincerely hope I don't do that, but you simply can't turn a book into an exercise of showing off your vocabulary. Early on in my writing, I used the word "parterre". It was absolutely and utterly the perfect word that conveyed exactly the mental image of overly formal gardens, period, etc, but I quickly found out thanks to an online crit group that a lot of people don't know what it means. so, parterre is my caution word to myself about getting too outre with words. (Okay, I know it's not actually an English word, but still...)

I agree that the two extremes must be avoided. However, I find your option a bit depressing, i.e. to avoid what you consider a perfect word just because some people would not know their meaning. Didn't you grasp the meaning of a lot of words that are not used in common talk through reading? If every writer took the option of avoiding non-common words literature would be so much poorer. If I don't know the meaning of a word when I am reading I look it after and I love doing that.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Baker » 18 Feb 2013, 06:33

wildlx wrote:However, I find your option a bit depressing, i.e. to avoid what you consider a perfect word just because some people would not know their meaning. Didn't you grasp the meaning of a lot of words that are not used in common talk through reading? If every writer took the option of avoiding non-common words literature would be so much poorer. If I don't know the meaning of a word when I am reading I look it after and I love doing that.

I hear you. Yes, I like learning new words, too; but I don't know how prevalent this attitude is, Wild. Writing a story is an act of communication and entertainment, not paedogogy. If people learn something, that is a bonus. Forcing people to drop ut of a story/fictional dream to look up a word is counter-productive to the reading experience. If everyone were like you, then, yes, let the vocabulary blaze away with those perfect words. As a writer, I can't assume that. I have to use my vocabulary in a different way, and find words that are good enough to serve the story and less inquisitive readers. You really don't want to come across as patronising. You want to entertain and take the reader along as a friend.
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Re: Vocabulary Matters

Postby Nurse Jo » 18 Feb 2013, 08:03

I have always enjoyed looking up new words whilst reading. There may be more of us like that than you think Baker. As a kid, I always read with a dictionary or my trusty Roget's nearby.

However, I don't like books where one senses the vocabulary used is a vehicle to show off how clever the writer is! It's all in the context.
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