After a recent discussion on the use or non-use of BIG words in writing, I had to stop and think…what exactly do we mean when we say BIG WORDS? And to what extent is it okay to use these so-called BIG words in our writing?
If one Googles “SAT Vocabulary,” you will get a list of words a student should have mastered by his senior year in high school. Are they big words? For example, is discern a big word? It may not be so big to us bloggers who have been around the vocab track for some years now, but yes, it may be big to a sixteen-year old who reads maybe one book a year, and he’s forced to do that. And yet, discern may not be so big to another sixteen-year old who reads over fifteen books a year or more! But it’s quite possible neither one uses the word in casual conversation, a fact which brings me to an important point.
We all possess different vocabularies for different situations. We have a speaking or working vocabulary. And we have a reading vocabulary, which is usually the larger of the two. Now, I would hazard a guess that most readers out there – such as the young girl who reads novels on her e-reader—does not consult a dictionary, e-wise or paper, whenever she comes across a word she doesn’t know. If she can’t get the meaning via its context, then she just keeps on reading and that’s that. So, where does that leave us: the writers?
I think it means that we can use words with which our readers may not be familiar, but give strong contextual clues to help them out. For instance, my fourteen to eighteen-year old readers may not know the meaning of discern, but I choose to use it in my YA novel, then why not thus:
Without his glasses, Gerald could not recognize the young girl coming through the woods. He tried to visualize her as best he could but it was useless. He could see the shape of her head, the cut of her hair, which was short like his sister’s, and he noted she was thin, but he could not, hard as he tried, discern the features of her face, especially the tell-tale scar.
I think in this example, I give enough contextual clues that a young reader can easily understand the meaning of discern without having to look it up, and in the ideal world, my reader will learn a new word in the process.
What are your thoughts on this issue?