Plain English

On the news this week I heard a reporter refer to someone ‘traversing’ a road. Traversing? Whatever happened to ‘crossing’? Traversing implies a journey, possibly hazardous, negotiating the Yukon or the Andes, not a suburban road. Maybe he was taking the lunchtime traffic into account.

Still, it got me thinking about our use of language in creative writing and how selecting that inelegant synonym to avoid repetition, doesn’t always work.

Master storyteller Stephen King has something to say on the subject in his excellent how-to book ‘On Writing’:  ‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.’

He also advises, ‘Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with anther word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.’

But sometimes it’s important just to get the ideas down and the fine-tuning of the vocabulary left to the 2nd draft. Then we can attend to all those repetitions, ugly words and mangled English. Nothing looks as elegant on the page as plain English, so peppering your work with long, complicated words smacks more of airing your knowledge of the thesaurus, than your imagination and creativity.

Make every effort to use exactly the right word. Some linguistic purists would have it that every word has a specific meaning and that there can only ever be one choice. I wouldn’t go that far – my vocabulary isn’t that extensive – but there’s a lot to be said for using crisp, clean and concise language. There’s simply no place in our writing for the pretentious or the pompous.

Here are a few of my least favourites:

  • At this moment in time                                      now
  • Currently                                                            now
  • At the present time                                            now
  • Peruse                                                               read
  • Commence                                                        begin
  • Residence                                                          home
  • Acquire                                                               get
  • Surfeit                                                                 excess
  • Ponder                                                                think
  • Incorrigible                                                          hopeless
  • Deceased                                                           dead
  • Requisition                                                          request
  • Fortuitous                                                            lucky
  • Altercation                                                           argument
  • Optimal                                                                ideal
  • Additional                                                             extra
  • In the event of                                                      if
  • In excess of                                                         more than
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6 thoughts on “Plain English

  1. I don’t like pretentious prose but I also don’t like it dumbed down. We have so many words, why not use them if they fit the passage? Perhaps the trick is not to overuse them. Even in Stephen King’s example above, he uses the word ‘cogitate.’ That’s not your typical word, but like ‘peruse’ and ‘ponder’ it has its place in writing. Where reading gets difficult, however, is when these words are peppered throughout a story ad nauseum. Then it sounds very Frasier Crane-ish, I think. 🙂

  2. I don’t usually comment on writers writing about writing but though I agree with you overall I also think Carrie makes a good point. I’m by no means a “linguistic purist” but teaching English overseas made me realise that, as she implies, there are really no synonyms. Traverse/cross are an example – look up ‘traverse’ in the thesaurus and you’ll find ‘cross’ or ‘cross over’. Which is why if you’re a writer you should bin the thesaurus. As far as the reporter’s utterance is concerned, I’m just thankful she/he knew the word – many of them seem to have a vocabulary of no more than a few hundred, if that.

  3. I try to make the words fit the setting. A number of my main characters have advanced degrees, and when they speak, things can get convoluted and some long words appear. It’s appropriate for them. But I’m working to make sure I don’t overdo it.

    And as I work through more refined drafts, I try to keep more descriptive sections “leaner and cleaner.” 😉

  4. I’m all for improving vocabulary, but in striking a balance between clarity and creativity we need to choose words that are correct in the context we’re using them. So let’s not forget the way our characters speak and our audience – this will also influence our choice. A thesaurus offers alternative words, which may be similar or related, but are not always exact synonyms. The lexicographers might have got it right after all – no synonyms have exactly the same meaning in all contexts because etymology, geographical diversity, vague or ambiguous meanings and historical usage make each one of them unique.
    I’m more interested in avoiding mangling our beautiful language with irrelevancies and redundancies such as ‘free gift’ (no gift is free if you have to pay for it); ‘I myself’; ‘at this moment in time’; ‘due to the fact that’; ‘in the process of’. 🙂

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