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What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
This famous quote by Shakespeare reminds me of two things 1) he didn’t use any big words, he could have said: “woody perennial of the genus Rosa” but he didn’t, 2) reading Shakespeare for a class at the university in the US was a lot of work for me (which involved using a dictionary very often).
As I go through the process of revising, I worry much more about little details which don’t cross my mind when I write.
Most of you know that English is not my mother tongue. French is. I used to write in French. I could show feelings in French, I could create metaphors easily, I could either use simple terms or play with the so-called “big” words. Since I lived in the US for so long, studied at the university mainly in English or German and now use English pretty much all day, I cannot do this any longer.
I write in English. It comes naturally to me and I love it.
However, I sometimes wonder: is my English good enough?
(for some reason, I just experienced a Zoolander flashback)
Stephen King explained in his book On Writing (by the way, thanks again Sara for organizing a discussion on this book in April 😀 You should join if you already read it or maybe are planning on reading it):
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
This made me feel better somehow.
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy reading novels with big words. I know that the more I read, the more I learn. My vocabulary expands naturally but I cannot force big words into my work. It doesn’t feel right. So I will listen to Stephen King on this and promise to him (and mainly to myself) that no I will never say “John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion” when I mean “John stopped long enough to take a shit”. (hmm yes I just used the word “shit” and yes it kind of feels weird to have that word on my blog :-)…).
Do you sometimes doubt your vocabulary or your grammar? Do you consciously use big words?
31 thoughts on “The beauty of words or the pulchritude of morphemes?”
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Thanks again 😀 *blushes*
I, a native English speaker, fear my vocabulary is too basic. Well, I know it is, but I try to not let it bother me. Because I hate being embarrassed, lol, I don’t purposely try to create bigger words. I don’t usually use a thesaurus. I don’t make sure every blog post is grammatically correct. Although I do with my writing, as best as I can. I figure as I read I’ll pick up bigger words, and if I don’t, it’s okay. I know how to form sentences, and my spelling is usually spot on. LOL! I’m easy to please. 🙂
Thanks for the input Jennifer 😀 I also love that my spelling is usually spot on (in all languages I know) –> this definitely pleases me too 😀
I find that often, elegance in writing is not so much about syllable length, but about using the right words. There’s a time and place for polysyllables, but sometimes a simple expression does the job much better. King refers to vocabulary as one of the basic elements in the writer’s toolbox. Having a wide vocabulary is not about having the heaviest hammer with which to bash every nail, but in having the hammer that does the best job of getting a particular nail in the wood.
You are very much right, Colin: using the right words is the most important part. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I write YA fiction, which is a little daunting, sometimes. If I use a big word, I wonder whether my target audience knows it or will they have to look it up in a dictionary? I am also reminded of a person who wanted to join our writer’s group so he submitted a piece of his writing. We could not believe it was for-real! It was as if he wrote simple sentences then changed every word with one from a thesaurus – and he was so proud of his work! It was painful to read and some of the synonyms he used from that thesaurus really weren’t the right words for the context. This only goes to prove, you don’t need to use puffed-up words in your writing, unless you use them when speaking. Let your words flow naturally and your reader will thank you for it!
“Let your words flow naturally and your reader will thank you for it!”–> very nicely put!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic 😀
I try to focus more on the story and what the characters would say in situations. Always trust your gut when writing a scene. If it calls for a big word, great! If it calls for the down and dirty version, that’s AWESOME too.
Also, you had me ROLLING with your last two sentences. Those are perfect examples.
And isn’t Stephen King the BEST with writing advice?! God, that man is a genius. 🙂 🙂
(PS: You are an awesome writer!)
Thanks, Kerri 😀 *blushing* a little…
“trust your gut when writing a scene”–> you are so very much right!
I’m not a writer but I’ve wanted to read the Stephen King book so I can relate to writers more (when I hopefully become an editor or agent). BUT, I also wanted to say that I adore that you used a Shakespeare quote from Romeo and Juliet. It’s my favorite text to read with my students every year (9th graders). So many wonderful themes and quotables from Shakespeare. Never an easy read, but so poetic and, I think, true to human nature!
Thanks Kari 😀 Shakespeare definitely had a way with words and timeless themes…
If you decide to read Stephen King, I would love to hear your thoughts on it especially seeing it from the “other side” 😀
Ooo! Great subject! I don’t consciously use big words, because my MC wouldn’t. Sometimes, though, I know there just HAS to be the exact word I need out there, but I can’t seem to find it! Or, sadly, I decide it doesn’t exist. So I have to use more words than I think I should to convey the same thing. Does that make sense? I mean, I know the English language has a lot of words, but sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be enough.
Thanks Peggy 😀
I know what you mean, your comment makes total sense to me!
Sometimes, that perfect word slips my mind and that’s when I wonder: does it exist? do I maybe not know it?
Questions after questions…
I love that Stephen King quote. 🙂
I find my voice flows most naturally when I don’t put too much thought into the words I’m choosing, especially when I’m drafting. There’s always time to go back and fiddle with word choice later, but I’d never write a word that I wouldn’t use in common conversation, unless it was character-specific and part of dialogue.
Stephen King does have a way with words 😀
Thanks for your comment, Katy…I think you’re spot on with the “character-specific” part.
In college, I had a classmate who would go through all of his papers with a thesaurus. By the time he was done, the papers were unintelligible.
Now, every time I’m tempted to throw in a big word (“limpid” is a favorite), I think of him. It’s a great cure 🙂
Thanks Issy 😀 I think it comes for our strive to perfection – while perfection is subjective 😀
What a great quote! I need to put that on the wall of my classroom…my students need that lesson!
😀 Thanks Jessica…I should put that quote right next to my computer…
I am always amazed by multi-lingual individuals. 🙂 One language gives me enough problems!
I doubt my grammar and word usage all the time! When it comes to grammar in particular, I struggle and constantly second-guess myself. I am thankful for a wonderful friend who helps me figure out punctuation and spelling. 😉
Thanks C.B. 😀 Learning languages has always been fun to me and I started young (which I heard does help ;-))
It appears we all doubt ourselves and our writing but find ways to cope with it 😀
Raised in the US speaking ‘American’. Living in the Caribbean and learning English. You bet I doubt my verbiage.
I see I’m not the only one 😀
You make a really good point about the size of words in your writing, especially if you’re writing for YA. I don’t think we should ‘dumb it down’, so to speak, because of our audience, but you also don’t want to alienate people with overlarge word choices. Sometimes it just makes sense to go with spare words and not the big clunky ones. Great post, Elodie 🙂
Thanks Jaime 😀 I also don’t think we should “dumb it down” especially. It appears we just need to make sure to use the right words for that particular moment in time or dialogue 😀
I’ve been having my doubts for a long time as well, but I just can’t imagine writing in any other language but English. I once got a compliment that I have a unique way of phrasing things because it’s not my first language, so that was nice.
Most of the time, I try not to think about it too hard, or I block myself. 😀 Your quotes were really helpful!
Thanks Carolin 😀 I think what transpires is we all doubt ourselves in one way or another when it comes to our writing…but we find tools to cope with it 😀