The Skill List Project: Vocabulary

The last time I blogged here, I started The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly as a way for me to think about the many aspects of writing sf; partly to tell would-be writers about skills they should try to develop; but mainly as a forum for anyone interested in fiction to analyze what specific skills are involved and how those skills can be improved.

This time around, we’re looking at the most basic building-blocks of writing: words.

Correctness

Practically speaking, no one can know and understand all the words in English, especially if we include regional idioms and specialized technical vocabularies…but damn it, a writer should try. Writers who don’t know words are like doctors who don’t know anatomy.

At a minimum, knowing a word means knowing how to spell it.
(Spell-checking software is nice for catching typos, but it’s far too stupid to rely on as a substitute for using your brain.) Knowing a word also means understanding the word’s usage…the “proper” usage, as well as all the unspoken accretions that the word has picked up over time.

A few decades ago, the term “usage” implicitly meant “proper” usage: the gospel according to “leading experts.” My favorite dictionary (The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, now sadly out of print) sometimes had a “usage” discussion at the end of a word’s definitions. For example, here’s the one from “hopefully”:

Hopefully, as used to mean it is to be hoped or let us hope, is still not accepted by a substantial number of authorities on grammar and usage. The following example of hopefully in this sense is acceptable to only 44 per cent of the Usage Panel: Hopefully, we shall complete our work in June.

I love picturing a panel of experts voting on when a word is acceptable; there’s nobility in trying to hold back the tide of verbal sloppiness. Furthermore, as writers we should be cognizant of what usages are and aren’t “correct”—that’s part of our jobs. We can still abuse the heck out of words for artistic effect, but if we do, we should do so deliberately, not out of ignorance.

Suitability and Flavors

Beyond considerations of “proper” usage, there’s a broader question: When does a word fit in a particular context? Words may have identical dictionary definitions but different flavors. For example, consider “smart”, “intelligent”, “clever”, and “shrewd”. Each means roughly the same thing, but they leave the reader with different impressions. “Shrewd” comes with a hint of amorality or outright dishonesty; “clever” often suggests “too smart for their own good”; “smart” is usually said approvingly, while “intelligent” feels more neutral, but may also mean “book-smart, not people-smart”.

Good writers recognize such differences in flavors, and capitalize on those differences in order to nudge readers in certain directions. If I describe a character as shrewd, it predisposes the reader to wonder if the character is up to no good. I don’t have to spell things out…and indeed, I may be deliberately playing with the reader’s expectations. Whatever I intend, it’s important for me to know how readers are going to react to “shrewd” as opposed to any comparable word I might use. I don’t want the flavors of my words to clash with what I’m trying to accomplish.

This is why you shouldn’t blindly pull words out of dictionaries or thesauruses: the literal definition of a word seldom tells you the extra flavors that the word conveys to knowledgeable readers. When people use words they don’t thoroughly understand, it can be painful—just think of the way we wince when someone attempts to use slang that they don’t really “get.” You have to know a word inside and out before you use it…and you should know as many words as possible, so that they’re available for you to use if and when you need them.

(Of course, just because you know a word doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a particular story. But that’s a topic for another day.)

How do you learn as many words as possible? By reading anything you can get your hands on…especially stuff that goes beyond your same-old-same-old, whatever that is. When you come across a new word, write it down. Write down the context too, so you’ll remember how it was used. Look up the meaning in a dictionary, but also check Google for other appearances of the word so you can see it in action in a number of contexts. Keep finding occurrences of the word until it’s no longer a stranger to you. That’s when you’re ready to use it yourself.

Other Suggestions?

We’ll talk a lot more about words and word choice in some future posting, when we get around to skills associated with diction. For now though, I’ll turn the floor over to you: what are some tips for improving vocabulary, and really getting to know new words (as opposed to just making a passing acquaintance)? In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: learning to love grammar.

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  1. 1. Laura

    Play games like D&D, board games and any sort of card game.

    You are with a group of people and even if they are long time friends, you are still mixed enough your vocabulary will get an expansion.

    And if you play D&D and the host of other adventure games in a public forum, then expansion is an understatement.

  2. 2. Doug Hulick

    Get a Dictionary of Etymology (gives the origins & roots of words). Use it. Fascinating stuff.

    Also, I am saving up for a copy of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (http://tinyurl.com/m6d5uh), but many university libraries, etc. have copies as well. Again, fascinating stuff.

  3. 3. Mary

    Words are best met in the wild, in their native habitat. Which means, usually, on the page, since most writing vocabularies are larger than speaking ones, and furthermore only on the page can you run across the vocabularies of the dead.

    Read, read, read, read, read, read. . . .

    Dictionaries and other vocabulary building tricks are no substitute for encounters in the wild.

  4. 4. Andrew A. A.

    Idioms, colonialism, and slang. Words are ever changing and sometimes we don’t know it.

    I did a paper on, what was called at the time, “Ebonics” (which is a term I highly dislike). Rhythm, slowing and shortening of words was the trend at the time in most inner city community; transcending racial background but not necessarily age. Reclaiming words with negative association into positive was also popular. What this research paper did for me was open me up to a whole different speech patterns and, yes, vocabulary.

    In my writing I have been caught with my pants/pen down, using both colonialism I grew up with, out of date slangs and misuse of commas and such for speech patterning. But when a grammarian/scrabble-aficionado calls me out for liberal word usage, I will get my hackles in a rough.

    “The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson”, a great, hilarious, British teen-girl series has the classic line — after the family comes back from vacation in southern USA, getting off the plane, the baby sisiter runs around screaming, “Spank my fanny. Spank my fanny.”

    Watch your vocabulary…

  5. 5. James Alan Gardner

    All quite good suggestions (and by the way, I’m a Georgia Nicolson fan too).

    Another suggestion occurs to me, sparked by the mention of the dictionary of etymology: the years I spent learning Latin in high school were hugely well spent. Not that I still remember the finicky details of the fourth conjugation, but exposure to the language word-roots, plus the ins and outs of Latin grammar, turn out to be relevant far more often that you’d ever expect.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Heh — I’m looking forward to the “learning to love grammar” post, because that’s a gospel I’ve been preaching for a while now. (To the point of riffing on the etymological connection between “grammar” and “gramarye”, and how knowing the former allows you to work your magic better.)

  7. 7. Erin O.

    In addition to being a writer, I’m also a linguist (in the academic sense, not in the “knows many languages” sense–although I do know many languages). Dictionaries, especially printed dictionaries, tend to lag behind the accepted usage of words. The example of the word “hopefully” having only a 44% usage rating from the usage panel is a good indicator of how this works. Grammarians, not linguists, are usually on these panels, and these professionals tend to ascribe to a prescriptive-only point of view regarding language.

    I would argue that when it comes to word selection and grammar, the best way to avoid sounding dated, but to also avoid using words in ways your readers won’t understand, is through careful observation of how the word is used “in the wild”. For instance, ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence is commonly accepted exactly as the example sentence indicated. The 54% of grammarians who did not accept it are hanging on to a linguistic past that has since evolved, as language tends to do. Many of the words we use today will develop new usages by 2020, and while it will sound “funny” to us, younger generations will think we’re crotchety and dated for saying so.

    The OED is probably one of the best dictionaries for keeping updated on current accepted usages as well as what is considered “proper” by grammarians, giving you the best of both worlds, and providing you with the resources necessary to choose usage of words new to you based on your particular language needs. And as a bonus, many public libraries now subscribe to the online OED, which typically offers many times more information on a word than its print versions (which we all know are HUGE).

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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