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Obstacles to Good Writing #3: Vocabulary

There’s another potential obstacle that arises between the writer and the reader which is occasionally so obvious that it is overlooked, and that is vocabulary.

The word ‘vocabulary’ stems from a late Middle English word which traces back to the Latin vocabulum, from vocare ‘call’, perhaps indicating a teaching method whereby students had to call out words and their meanings in order to learn them. General vocabulary has declined over recent decades, most would agree, but it might take a couple of examples to make sure that we can see the difference. Though both of these examples are from children’s literature, the fact that they are aimed at children is perhaps as insightful as their content.

The first is a random sampling taken from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 8, The Deathday Party.

October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Her Pepperup potion worked instantly, though it left the drinker smoking at the ears for several hours afterward. Ginny Weasley, who had been looking pale, was bullied into taking some by Percy. The steam pouring from under her vivid hair gave the impression that her whole head was on fire.

Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid's pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds. Oliver Wood's enthusiasm for regular training sessions, however, was not dampened, which was why Harry was to be found, late one stormy Saturday afternoon a few days before Halloween, returning to Gryffindor Tower, drenched to the skin and splattered with mud.

A careful examination shows an unchallenging vocabulary for its target audience - indeed, one of the main reasons why the Harry Potter series of books became so popular when I was an English teacher years ago was precisely because the word content of each book posed no threat to the age group of its readers. Perhaps the most challenging word in this extract is ‘spate’, but, as it’s part of the clichéd expression ‘spate of colds’ it would probably pass by unnoticed. Everything else is commonplace in terms of words, even if what is being described is magical.

Conversely, here’s an excerpt from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, a hundred years earlier:

When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an arm-chair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing-gown and slippers for him, and told him river stories till supper-time. Very thrilling stories they were, too, to an earth-dwelling animal like Mole. Stories about weirs, and sudden floods, and leaping pike, and steamers that flung hard bottles—at least bottles were certainly flung, and from steamers, so presumably by them; and about herons, and how particular they were whom they spoke to; and about adventures down drains, and night-fishings with Otter, or excursions far a-field with Badger. Supper was a most cheerful meal; but very shortly afterwards a terribly sleepy Mole had to be escorted upstairs by his considerate host, to the best bedroom, where he soon laid his head on his pillow in great peace and contentment, knowing that his new-found friend, the River, was lapping the sill of his window.

This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and full of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them. excited friend shook out the table-cloth and spread it, took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents in due order, still gasping: "O my! O my!" at each fresh revelation. When all was ready, the Rat said, "Now, pitch in, old fellow!" and the Mole was indeed very glad to obey, for he had started his spring-cleaning at a very early hour that morning, as people will do, and had not paused for bite or sup; and he had been through a very great deal since that distant time which now seemed so many days ago.

About twelve years ago, I attempted to read this latter book to a classroom of 13-year-olds. I wanted to introduce them to the delights of a children’s classic, and one of my favourite books - a book which, by the way, I had had no trouble reading without assistance some twenty years earlier. But I was faced with an uproar: every sentence contained words and expressions which were totally unfamiliar to my audience. Simple words like ‘parlour’, ‘weirs’, ‘pike’, ‘a-field’, ‘escorted’, ‘considerate host’ and so forth met with blank faces. Part of it was a shift in life-experience - children were spending more time indoors, less time out in the countryside by then: many had never seen a weir, even though there was one just down the road from the school. But the vocabulary was overwhelming in many other ways: ‘lapping’, ‘emancipated’, ‘ripening’, ‘reed-stems’, ‘revelation’, ‘pitch in’ and many more expressions completely eluded these teenagers. My attempts to continue with the book faced open rebellion; lessons became spent largely buried in dictionaries, until each and every term was grasped. But by then I had come to realise that the general decline in vocabulary had robbed that generation of the joys of such works as Grahame’s. It was a great shame but incontrovertible.

Using a set of words more advanced than your target audience is in most cases going to present an obstacle for many readers. Some may be ‘hooked’ by the story to such a degree that they persist. In an earlier article, I quoted from J. R. R. Tolkien’s children’s tale, The Hobbit. That book is a good example of how a vocabulary can change and expand as a story goes on. The beginning is much simpler in word terms than the ending. Here’s the opening paragraph again:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

But here is a passage from towards the end of the book:

“In the name of Esgaroth and the Forest,” one cried, “we speak unto Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, calling himself the King under the Mountain, and we bid him consider well the claims that have been urged, or be declared our foe. At the least he shall deliver one twelfth portion of the treasure unto Bard, as the dragon-slayer, and as the heir of Girion. From that portion Bard will himself contribute to the aid of Esgaroth; but if Thorin would have the friendship and honour of the lands about, as his sires had of old, then he will give also somewhat of his own for the comfort of the men of the Lake.”

Then Thorin seized a bow of horn and shot an arrow at the speaker. It smote into his shield and stuck there quivering.

Tolkien, a master of languages, knew better than to hit his readers initially with terms like ‘consider’, ‘urged’, ‘declared’, ‘foe’, ‘contribute’, ‘honour’, ‘sires’, ‘somewhat’, 'smote' and so on, quite apart from the semi-archaic way of speaking them. A reader of The Hobbit finds that not only does he or she meet more and more of Tolkien’s underlying creation of Middle-earth as the story goes on, but also the words used within it change and grow.

The simple message for writers is this: match your vocabulary to your audience, or risk losing some of them. But some may protest: 'Writing isn’t governed by vocabulary, one has to write what one writes and if someone can’t grasp it, that’s their problem!' And there is truth in that. Write your story and let it filter out those who can grasp its words, would be another way of expressing that. I am not favouring one approach or another, but merely pointing out the potential barrier of an over-extended vocabulary - or indeed, a vocabulary that is too simple for the audience - when crafting fiction. Be aware of the level of words that you are using, in other words.

There’s another aspect to the words you choose too, but we’ll tackle that next time.


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