There is a point in many people’s lives when they are faced with a text that is packed full of long or unfamiliar words. This often happens when reading very old literature or philosophical texts, but it might be an academic essay or a particularly difficult poem. Whenever it happens, it has a similar effect: the reader feels like an idiot.
These texts leave us struggling with understanding words in a way we haven’t since we first learned language as a child. Word by word, the line slows down, the shapes of letters becoming more apparent on the page, and we become painfully aware of how much mental energy it actually takes to read. There are no context clues because the surrounding words are as incomprehensible as the word we first paused on. Soon, even the grammatical structure of the line seems strange and wrong. There is a foreignness to the moment, as if we are completely lost in a parallel world. A small, perhaps irrational, panic spikes in the back of the brain— what if I don’t understand my own language? What if I can’t comprehend or communicate? Am I isolated from other people?
It sounds extreme, but I believe that these moments truly tap into a special sort of fear, at least the first time they happen. Humans are social beings. We need companionship and interaction with each other. Our form of communication that we call ‘language’ is so important to us as a species that when we feel that our ability to use it is threatened, even just for a moment, somewhere a fear whispers that it will cost us our communities and loved ones.
There are a few responses to this feeling, and each has the power to forever shape someone’s writing.
1. “The Dictionary”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to you not trying hard enough, and dedicate your life to learning new words.
This is a pretty good reaction, because it has the potential to really expand your vocabulary. These are the sorts of people who actually own a physical dictionary, buy word-of-the-day calendars, or set themselves up with a screensaver that displays them definitions. They subscribe to facebook groups that post pictures of obscure words (which may or may not be real) and try to work some of these into conversation occasionally.
Most of the time, those who fall into this category don’t end up writing extremely difficult texts, but do tend to include a greater amount of challenging words in their work along with plenty of context so readers can learn them too. Many authors fall into this category, and you can recognize them as the ones who seem to teach you new words all the time as you read their work.
(Small warning: Occasionally those with “The Dictionary” reaction will get caught on a new word and try to work it into everything, so there is a minor risk of them structuring ideas around their words instead of the other way around. This happened to me after learning the words “disgruntled” and “indubitably” as a child, and I’m sure I became unbearably obnoxious for a while.)
2. “The Thesaurus” Decide that not understanding the text is due to you being spectacularly stupid and incapable, and dedicate your life to attempting to hide this from everyone else who must just be inherently smarter and perfectly able to navigate thick tangles of obscure words.
This reaction is what makes English teachers pull their hair out and frustrates Stephen King.
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
These people will write papers and then open up a thesaurus and substitute every word possible with a synonym that’s more difficult to read (and often doesn’t even share the same meaning or connotation). These are the ones that change every “use” to “utilize” and “praise” to “approbation.” They will make their sentences as long as possible and are known for packing papers with enough fluff to fill a nursery of toy bears.
For some, it becomes a game. They feel that they’re expected to shove these words into their writing, and so they play along, feeling that they have outsmarted the system. You can see this sort of reaction from Calvin.
Their goal is no longer to communicate their ideas but to convince others that they have a command of grandiloquent language.
Unfortunately, it often convinces people of the opposite, because the goal of language is communication, and readers often can’t understand what in the world these writers are trying to say. This happens a lot in lower level essay writing courses, but I’m sure some go on writing this way forever. I imagine a dangerous loop could form where they feel stupid, use big words to feel smart, someone points out they used the words incorrectly, and then they feel stupid again.
“The Thesaurus” response is often caused by embarrassment or a secret lack of confidence, and is incredibly destructive. It’s one of those situations where fear leads directly to bad writing.
3. “The Hemingway” Decide that not understanding the text is due to the writer of the text being incapable of expressing their ideas clearly and dedicating your life to proving that all of life’s complexities of thought, emotion, and experience can be expressed in plain vocabulary.
This reaction leads to writing that is accessible to all sorts of readers. It doesn’t always mean that these writers don’t have a good vocabulary, but they usually believe that the simpler a sentence can be constructed, the better.
These people will look at essays with lines like, “The researcher discovered that female individuals have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to preface their statements with expressions which allow for additional possibilities or indicate a lack of commitment to their position” and correct it to “The researcher found that women are more likely to hedge their speech.”
They are likely to make the actual reading easy so that the reader’s focus can be on the complexity of the ideas explored. The reaction is named after the famous author because he is known for simple sentence structure and the use of accessible vocabulary. Plenty of other authors take this approach too, but Hemingway is famous for it.
The heart of this reaction is summed up in this exchange between Faulkner (who appears to have had a “Dictionary” reaction) and Hemingway:
“[Hemingway] had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary”
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Not everyone necessarily falls into one of the three categories, of course. Life is too complicated for that. For example, I believe it’s possible for a “Thesaurus” reaction to become a “Dictionary” or “Hemingway” response with a little reassurance.
Some texts are just plain difficult, and it doesn’t make anyone stupid for not understanding them immediately. People can have all sorts of creative ideas without also having a large vocabulary.
I think one of the best strategies to help make this shift with students is to encourage developing and exploring their ideas, using whatever vocabulary they currently have.
To anyone who is faced with feelings of doubt about your vocabulary while writing, my advice is to work with the tools you have. You can go looking for words as something fun to do when you aren’t writing, but during the actual writing process, try to explain your thoughts as best you can using the words with which you’re already comfortable. Reading more in between writing (even books that are just fun to read and would never be described as “challenging”) will probably build and round out your vocabulary on their own without you ever needing to memorize words from the dictionary.
Blending of multiple reactions is possible, too. I think that I myself am often “The Hemingway” in philosophy and “The Dictionary” in practice. While I believe that all ideas can be expressed simply, I am, after all, writing this blog about how much I love learning about words.