Just how BIG is a big word?

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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?

51 thoughts on “Just how BIG is a big word?

  1. daleydowning

    Context is very important. Kids are much more likely to figure out (or get close to) the meaning of a word by context rather than by going to a (paper or online) dictionary. You’re totally right, I think.

    “Big” words also need to fit the subject matter. Is it a medical drama? Well, then, there will be big words and that can’t really be avoided. Same with sci-fi, often. But you do need to consider the target audience. If you expect a 12-year-old to be reading your story, using lots of words that may be on the SAT probably won’t be effective.

    As an adult reader, I still don’t like big words. Unless they’re necessary to the story. That’s a major reason I only read YA anymore.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Good point about the subject matter driving vocabulary. Every discipline out there is vocabulary specific…if you’re not a neurosurgeon and you’re reading a novel on brain surgery…well have a dictionary handy! 🙂 but yeah, I agree that simply using a term nobody’s seen or heard of–and don’t need to see or hear–is a bit much.
      Thanks for reading and sharing. Only YA novels? Well, I think that’s pretty cool. I mean it. The last one I read was Mathieu’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, and I absolutely loved it.

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      1. daleydowning

        I decided a few years ago that I was tired of adult fiction, because I truly didn’t care how fancy the character’s kitchen was, or all the running commentary that so often becomes part of someone’s backstory in a murder mystery or a romantic drama. And I personally don’t like a ton of violence and gore and explicit sex in my reading. So, YA it is.

        A lot of YA authors are actually “better” writers, too, in my view – they feel their audience is more demanding (and parents and teachers may be as well), so they seem to put more effort into developing the story and characters. (Not totally true across the board, but this has frequently been my experience.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Paul Post author

        Whoa! You hit on a true sore spot! 🙂 I was reading a novel not too long ago and came across a long and boring chapter on politics…I thumbed through it and finally just skipped to the next. what can I say? You’re right…and the violence gets to me as well. I tried to read a Patterson novel a few months ago and what a disaster that was.
        The idea of YA authors having a demanding audience is something I hadn’t thought of. It’s a very good point and quite relevant.
        Thanks again for your honest and insightful input.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. daleydowning

        It occurred to me while I was watching Masterpiece Theatre a couple weeks ago that adults have *always* known the world can be a not-nice place, but that in *entertainment* we never saw the need to include the level of horrific details that we do nowadays. If we’re after an escape and a chance to have a happy ending (when that might not happen in the world we live in), then why include all the nastiness in fiction, too?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul Post author

      Yeah, I have a a terrible tendency to repeat words, so having a deep vocabulary is really a good thing. And by deep I don’t mean words that only a Faulkner scholar would understand, but words that add to the meaning of a passage.
      Thank you so much Rachel for reading and sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. sepultura13

    I think there is a need for big words, personally! To me, a big word is one that is A) similar to ‘discern,’ in your example above, or B) polysyllabic.
    Everyone is content to be “dumbed-down” by social media, especially with sites or apps that limit what you say to 140 characters or less. That’s characters, not even whole words! I expect readers to be intelligent – if they want something easily digestible, then they should stick to magazines and television. That’s just my not-so-humble opinion, of course.

    If a person doesn’t know what ‘discern’ means by the age of 12, I think that their education has been sorely limited and / or lacking.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Vocabulary studies, during my teaching days, was something I harped on endlessly. I remember getting into an argument with a colleague who felt that students didn’t need a separate vocabulary course. He agreed to allow me to test his seniors with a simple vocabulary test. My questions were not “write the definition of” as he thought, but rather things like, “My best friend and I were lucky. Our properties were contiguous. Explain.” The results of my fifty question vocabulary exam were disastrous. Over half his class failed the test.
      The sad fact is that American education and media fails our kids every day. All you have to do is read a magazine article written in the forties and then read one on a similar topic from last month. The “dumb-down” effect is horrifying. So I totally agree with you. If we as writers don’t see using a challenging vocabulary as important and necessary, then who else?
      Thanks for reading and sharing.

      Liked by 3 people

      Reply
  3. Selina Stambi

    Hello Paul, as one-time teacher and a voracious reader, I have to confess that I’m very concerned about the lack of ‘bulk’ in the vocabulary of the younger generation. It is troubling. Food for thought indeed. Happy New Year.

    Liked by 7 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      And thank you for reading and sharing. I have to agree. I remember sometime back when we, English composition teachers, first started noticing “text” in student essays, e.g., b/c for because, and “u” for you. I think we all gasped out loud. We stopped that trend, at least. It’s a tough world, and as one parent said, “You can try, but you’ll never beat the street.” Well, but we have to keep on trying.
      Thanks again!

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  4. Sha'Tara

    As was “predicted” in much futuristic sci-fi writings (I read tons of sci-fi because of the inventive and imaginative content) today’s younger generations, aided and abetted by cell phones and “apps” are creating and learning their own languages, by-passing what we had to learn by rote. Forget the classics in their case. Oh, they can still read them but they won’t get much of the attendant philosophy out of them, mostly the romance and violence – exceptions noted. “Big” words to them would be practically everyday words in our days in grade school. Dictionary and thesaurus were part and parcel of our complement of tomes we packed to and from school daily. Some very recent “big words” I’ve had to look up and try to lock in my mind: antithesis, crony capitalism, egregious, pulchritude. Hundreds of really great words need constant shepherding, they just don’t want to keep their meaning with them.

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    1. Paul Post author

      So very true. I remember putting in BOLD letters and ALL CAPS a statement in student outlines that they could not use their cell phone dictionary with it’s one-word definitions. I also remember one student loudly complaining that not only did a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary cost too much, but it was also too heavy to carry around. Sigh. I can’t remember my response. Probably a good thing.

      Thanks Sha’Tara for your insightful response.

      Liked by 2 people

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  5. Simply-Me

    An excellent piece ad a very much need one too. I agree, there is a dire need for ‘big’ words, and they must learn to discern the ‘big’ words.
    Unfortunately dumbing down is a fact and it continues to get worse day by day.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      So true. I can understand that folks don’t know the meaning of seven syllable words that are used only in highly specific situations, but words like ‘discern’ or ‘amiable’ or ‘ambivalent’ or ‘contiguous’ are indeed words that an author, YA or otherwise, should not hesitate to use.

      Thanks for reading and sharing! And even more thanks for your support! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Simply-Me

        Indeed it’s my pleasure Paul.
        I agreed with you Paul but it’s sad what the education system is becoming. For the time being I say homeschooling to enrich the future children is a better option.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sha'Tara

        All this talk about big words, oh my, I’ve got one I remember from raising kids back in another century: supercalifragilisticexpiadilocious. That’s double the number of big word syllables mentioned. So there. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Paul Post author

        Sorry to be so late responding. Being one who worked in the Eng Ed pubic school arena, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the issue of homeschooling, but I gotta say, I think you may well be right on this one. You are exactly right. The public school in this country has been headed in the wrong direction for a number of years without much resistance. If I had a school-age child, I think I might be a home-school parent!
        Thank you for reading and responding. Again sorry for being so late with my response.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Simply-Me

        Not to worry Paul, and no need to apologise, I guess it’s a busy period for us all, with holidays and exams and etc.

        Yes I agree with you, but home schooling is something I’m considering too now.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Lovely

    Nice Blog on this Paul! To be honest, I learned the word “discern” when I was 18. I was college already here in PH.

    These big words are usually seen in academic books and novels. In the blogging scene ( for commercial use) …using BIG words or may i say unfamiliar words is not encouraged for you to reach more audience. In the fast paced world today, everyone appreciates convenience. Actually.. the fact that they will read a long article in the internet is a turn off to mostly young people. As you know, youtubers gain more audience due to convenience than bloggers.

    As for me, the usage of words will depend on the “purpose” of the article. In creative writing, literature, text books or anything academic.. yes big words is a big deal… on the other hand..there’s this thing called “new media”., then i guess use more concise or direct wordso reach your audience.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      You make some excellent points Lovely. I think you are quite correct. It’s a sad reality of our fast-paced world that people don’t have a great deal of time for reading and tend to want to read things quickly. Of course you’re an exceptional person! 🙂 I mean that. Most people out there don’t have your reading experience and their vocabulary isn’t as good. I think you are so right that it is it is incredibly important to be concise with our writing so that we reach as many people as possible.
      Thank you so much for reading and sharing. Your thoughts are valuable to me.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Lovely

        As of now, my goal as an esl teacher is to encouraged young people not to depend too much on tech and also help them realize that enrichment of vocab is important esp on work. Even simple writing of letter can be a hard time with them. They used shortened sms text even on writing which is not formal. Language has many things to offer that will help them a lot even in everyday living.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Paul Post author

        That is so true. I think you are on the right path. For ESL students vocabulary is essential and it’s something that they have to keep working at. And it is difficult with these young folks today…they are soooo dependent on their smart phones…for everything…it’s scarey! Well, thank you so much for responding and as always it’s great to hear from you.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Moushmi Radhanpara

    Hi Paul,
    this question has often haunted me too. I mean how does one Know if a word being used is big or not? It might be big for someone and otherwise for someone else as you have accurately mentioned in this post.
    I cannot say much on this as I think of myself as still ‘improving’ and ‘learning’ but I had a wonderful time reading this.
    Also I read ‘The sound of the mountain’ by Kawabata which you suggested a few days back and I should say that it was indeed a wonderful book which once picked up was not to be left until finished. It was a true classic one which accompanied me beautifully.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Oh, thank you so much Moushmi! You know when it comes to vocabulary, I’m definitely still at it. The thing is I don’t get much chance to use many of the words I learn so I have to keep a running list that I can refer to from time to time. It never stops!

      Oh thank you for reading Kawabata. I’m really glad you enjoyed the novel. It’s one of those novels that I can read and re-read and always get something different. I think I mentioned that I read THE NAMESAKE by Jhumpa Lahiri. I loved it. So thank you so much for the suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Moushmi Radhanpara

        Yes you did tell me that.
        Both these books are exceptional and I think we have enjoyed each other’s suggestions.
        And it happens with me too that when I learn a new word I want to use it but most often it is difficult to put it somewhere so I end up making a list too and keep thinking when and where can I use it without forcing it on any piece 😀

        Liked by 2 people

  8. dweezer19

    The problem for me, with the declining use of proper spelling, grammar, etc, is that some words which I consider normal-such as discern-are touted as “big” words even among adults. I love the way you worked it into your text for young adults; but I simply refuse to dumb down my writing because schools are failing and people are becoming lazy. Too many want the 50 Shades of Gray thrill ride without having to think about a subject for even a moment. Murder mystery? I can hardly imagine many people sitting still for a Miss Marple ending. And to be honest, when I was a teen and avid reader, there were a few words which I either looked up or just skimmed over with assumptions as I read them. I recall my moments of “aha!” later in life when I finally found out how to pronounce these words. Two I recall were rendezvous (from Nancy Drew) and hors d’oeuvres (Donna Parker at Cherrydale) , both young adult books at the time. Wouldn’t it seem feasible to assume that people should be better educated and well spoken as we evolve rather than the other way around? It simply isn’t so. 😔

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      So so so true. I’m going to use what might be called–from mildly challenging to challenging vocabulary–especially in my literary novels. It’s the only way to fly. I find that gaining vocabulary depth is also gaining in understanding and insight into ideas and concepts. One thing I was obsessed with as a teacher was trying…trying…to get my students to understand that many words…are not so simple…say like “amiable.” but a word like
      “emulate” represents a concept, a deep human need. It suggests things such as power, control, desire, role-modeling, so and so on. If a person understands this word/concept then that person has a better and clearer understanding of a basic human need, definitely those dependent humans we call children! Knowing a lot of words won’t make us great writers, but it seems to me that most great writers did indeed know a lot of words!

      thanks dweezer, for reading and responding. And thank you for refusing to “dumb down” your writing. Good for you! 🙂

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  9. laura bruno lilly

    Lots of good input in the comments as well as your basic post!
    My teeny two cents: I’d say as long as the usage of the word isn’t for mean-spirited motives (ie-trying to make someone feel bad because they haven’t a clue) one should use what seems to fit the purpose.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      You bring up a very good point. One of the rules I told my students …and one I try to follow myself…is to be sparing with infrequently used words. In other words, don’t overuse what we are calling BIG words. It becomes overbearing, just as you say, mean-spirited. And it sounds ridiculous. Good point…thank you for responding with an input worth much more than two cents! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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    1. Paul Post author

      Exactly! Very well said. I remember giving my students a list of ten words we had studied during the week and in their Friday essay they had to use one or two or the words in the essay. The rule was to never use more than three words. If they did the essay sounded pedantic and stuffy, whereas if they used only one or two well, then the essay read more like a sound, academic piece.
      Thank you Karina! It ‘s always good to hear from you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  10. Deb

    I think the ones who take the time to read would appreciate the “big” words and understand them. I also think it’s your writing, what words do you want to use, be true to yourself first and your audience will follow, the one you want. The context that you used as an example completely defines what discern means if they are not familiar with the term they would understand it in your example, so that too will work if you feel more comfortable with aiding the reader some. What a very thoughtful topic Paul, but then you always give us fodder…uh-oh was that a “big” word? 😉

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Oh yeah that was a BIG word all right! ha~! But. old school Paul got it. whew! You know I remember reading Faulkner when I was in college. Half the words I had no idea, but I kept reading and loved it. Now I don’t intend to mimic Faulkner, but I think young readers today are less prone to keep with a book. It’s a fact, albeit a sad one, but still it’s what we writers have to deal with. Of course it’s not such a burden since I don’t know that many big words anyway. 🙂 Thanks Deb, hope you have a great wonderful weekend! 🙂

      Oh, since you know Cody…poor baby…he’s wearing an Elizabethan Collar. Gaaa! 😦
      He had some fatty tissue removed and was stapled…poor puppy. Another week and a half and he’ll be up and running. Right now he’s confined to the house. But he’s now here in the study with me. Sleeping. It’s all gonna be all right. 🙂
      Thanks again for your thoughtful remarks.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Deb

        Ha! An Elizabethan collar, very clever! I remember when my dog (RIP) Barney had to wear one he kept hitting it on everything, he had an awful time trying to walk without catching the wall with it, it was so funny even though it wasn’t, you know. We’ll I wish Cody a speedy recovery and not too much frustration from it! I think you have a beautiful , understandable writing style, go with your gut and all will be well! Wishing you, your wife and Cody a magical weekend!! ☺

        Liked by 1 person

  11. rabirius

    I know that from language learning. If there is one word you don’t know you usually get the meaning from the context.
    However, if there are many words you don’t know you don’t understand anything.

    Liked by 2 people

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  12. ellenbest24

    My thoughts are: writers that use to flowery vocabularies constantly are likely to be left unfinished by most. If the occasional word that fits the voice or era of a character is slipped gently betwixt the lines of a novel; it will be an enjoyment to find.
    Personally long fangled names bug the stink out of me, when not one but several persephanie’s, and Montague farquavians and constant reference to constance Maria vonvanderbonk appear on one page *slam* I’m done. Great post

    Liked by 3 people

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  13. Claire Fullerton

    I’m late to the party here, as I just now found you, but oh, what an important and well written post. Your example of the word discern is a good one, and your use of it in the sentence would educate any reader paying attention. The thing about vocabulary is there are some people ignited by discovering new words, and others that gloss over. But unless you’re using uncommonly wielded words, such as chiaroscuro, I think there’s a danger in too much concern over what, in your case, a YA reader would find palatable. You’re such an engaging writer, it’s my feeling any reader would be compelled to look up an unknown word. Although it’s not your “job,” to educate your readers, I do think it is your gift.

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  14. michnavs

    Well as a language teacher myself, i say its important to have a wide array of vocabulary. Sadly though our youth of today is no longer aware of this. they dont read least they dont care about enriching their vocabulary… sad.

    Liked by 2 people

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  15. Idle Muser

    Being in the inception stage of writing, even I used to wonder what big words usually mean (though never thought about it critically.) Reading this has given me a bit of exposure and provided with some knowledge, Paul.
    Having read this, I am going to do more research and spend time in thinking over it, over the big-words. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you for your interest Aditi. I think when it comes to vocabulary we too often think in terms of “big” vs. “small” words and that puts us at a disadvantage in terms of increasing our ability to express ourselves. I agree with you that one of the best ways to build one’s vocabulary is to simply read. Thank you for the great input!
      Oh, and I’m incredibly impressed with your blog. so glad to have you as a blogging friend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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