Have you ever read a literary work and wondered at the range of vocabulary used within the work? Sometimes, the hardest thing for writers is finding the exact word, that perfect turn of phrase that conveys precisely what is meant. Sometimes, the exact word is elusive and understandably so because we do not always have that word in our vocabularies. Ideally, as writers, we should expand our vocabularies so we have suitable words at our fingertips, ready to convey the slightest nuance of meaning to our readers. Unfortunately, we might not all be equipped with encyclopedic memory or dictionary-like vocabularies. Lexicographer and dictionary expert Susan Dent posits the active vocabulary of an average English speaker is about 20,000 words, with a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 more words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, 47,156 obsolete words, and 615,100 definitions. This suggests that each word, on the average, might have up to three definitions and we know, sometimes, those definitions are not always related. Research also reveals reading fiction widens our vocabularies more than non-fiction, simply because fiction uses wider vocabularies than non-fiction. It’s highly likely, therefore, you have a larger vocabulary if you are a wide reader of fiction. If you want to expand your vocabulary, I always recommend reading fiction. Not only is it enjoyable, it’s highly educational as well.
My penultimate session in writing courses always includes tips on how to improve writing style and formatting your work. One way to improve your writing is to review your word choices, identify weak, imprecise, or indefinite words and phrases and replace those with more picturesque and exact language.
The vocabulary of younger generations seems to be narrower than it ever was, with colloquial usage and catch-all words replacing more exact language. What is more appalling, yet, is how mass media has picked up on the use of weak language, settling for imprecise expressions rather than looking for the best word. As writers, there is no excuse for you to settle for the most common, most innocuous words that pop into your head. Some of those words involve adjectives modified with qualifiers or quantifiers. Nearly every adjective modified by “very” can be replaced by a more precise word. For example, “very small” = tiny, minute, minuscule, diminutive, petite, microscopic; “very big” = large, huge, humongous, gigantic, massive, colossal, vast, tremendous, monumental; “very dry” = arid, parched, dehydrated, withered, shriveled; “very tasty” = delicious, delectable, flavorful, mouthwatering, ambrosiac, luscious. These examples are, by no means, exhaustive. That is why a dictionary and a thesaurus are a writer’s best friends.
Prepositional idioms are often redundant and don’t deliver the same effect as a singular word. For example, “get up” can mean stand, rise, arise, awaken, advance; to “lie down on a bed” means exactly the same things as to “lie on the bed”–there is just no way to “lie up”; “go forward” = advance, proceed; “climb up” = ascend; “climb down” = descend; “shut down” = shut, close, terminate, end. I could go on and on with lists of words that can be replaced with more precise and more picturesque language. In fact, I could probably write a book or two or three filled with such replaceable words. In the meantime, check your friendly dictionary and thesaurus. If you don’t have a print copy handy, there’s always the Internet. A simple word search will give you multiple sites giving you not only synonyms and antonyms but usage as well. Who said writing was easy?