“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” – Mark Twain
One of my daughters is an Arts and Visual Technology major, so of course she has to read articles about art. Here are a few sentences from an eight-page article, “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenburg. The footnotes inform us that this article was both published and broadcast on the radio.
I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant.
The fragmentary silhouette of a human figure, or of a teacup, will do so, and by doing so alienate pictorial space from the literal two-dimensionality which is the guarantee of paintingʼs independence as an art.
Far from incurring the danger of arbitrariness, Mondrianʼs art proves, as time passes, almost too disciplined, almost too tradition- and convention-bound in certain respects; once we have gotten used to its utter abstractness, we realize that it is more conservative in its color, for instance, as well as in its subservience to the frame, than the later paintings of Monet.*
Of course, this is an academic article and its intended audience (and most people, really) can understand what’s being conveyed. But for many, undue time and effort are needed to discern what the author means.
On the flip side, every now and again you’ll see someone complain about writing being dumbed down. This is usually pronounced by an older person criticizing the younger generation. Kids today!
But it wouldn’t take me long to tire of reading, or hearing, eight pages of sentences such as those from “Modernist Painting.” I’m not sure I’d make it past the first couple of paragraphs unless I had a rabid interest in the subject. Even then, I might look for an author writing about the topic in a more approachable manner.
So if anyone thinks your writing is too simplistic, be glad, for you are friendly and approachable. And you place communication over eagerness to show off your ability to consult a thesaurus.
Is the occasional five-dollar word okay to use? Sure, in moderation. But obfuscating (Will that be a credit or debit for your $5 charge?) your message with too many two-dollar words risks leaving you – and your quickly exiting readers – an expensive mess.
Do you have to power through complicated texts that could have been made simpler? What tips can you offer to lessen the pain and suffering?
What is your favorite five-dollar word?
Do you think writers today make commercial fiction and nonfiction too easy? Or about right?
Just for fun, try rewriting any one of the sentences from the article. Show us what you can do!
*Citations from article:
Forum Lectures (Washington, D. C.: Voice of America), 1960
Arts Yearbook 4, 1961 (unrevised)
Art and Literature, Spring 1965 (slightly revised)
The New Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1966
Peinture-cahiers théoriques, no. 8-9, I974 (titled “La peinture moderniste“)
Esthetics Contemporary, ed. Richard Kostelanetz, 1978
Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, 1982
Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism vol. 4, ed. John OʼBrian, 1993.
From: http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/modernism.html (Last access 21 July 07)
Tamela, Thank you Thank you Thank you! My writing is conversational. I do know 5 dollar words but I prefer fifty cent words so everyone can understand the message. I appreciate people who write with 5 dollar words, but I don’t like stopping to look up the definition of a word. It interrupts the flow of the story. My favorite word lately is, “angst,” I don’t know if you would consider it a $5 word, but it has 5 letters,
“angst” would not naturally be denominated in dollars or cents. It would be denominated in Deutsche marks or Euro’s as it is wholly a german language word meaning “fear”. It is so common in everyday use I would characterize it as perhaps a funfzig (50) pfenning word.
Thanks for this one. I spent 12 years drafting letters and documents in a law office and finally quit so I could have less stress and more time to write. This post adds new meaning to the term “making change” (which is what I’ll be doing with my writing).
I have mixed feelings about word choices. I love the classics such as penned by Dickens, Austen, Bronte, etc. I believe reading widely has expanded my vocabulary and am sometimes frustrated that I’m not allowed to use the perfect word because it has four syllables. I agree that there is no place for pretentious writing. But isn’t it through reading that most of us expand our vocabulary? I love it when I come across a word with which I’m unfamiliar, but used so naturally I have a sense of its meaning by the context. The more words we know, the better thinkers we can be because we have the exact, right word to formulate our thoughts.
Like I said, I have mixed feelings. When I write, I let the words flow whether they are fifty cent or twenty dollar words. Then I go back and rewrite, eliminating anything that feels pretentious. Sometimes I keep the expensive word because it is the right word, but usually I change it to a different, inferior word.
For example, “animadversion” means to criticize or censure in a mean-spirited manner. I first came across it when reading Jane Eyre, but I’ve never used it. Not that it hasn’t been the better word, as far as the exact meaning I’m after, but no writer’s group will let me get away with it. So I use the weaker words and sacrifice the specific meaning I’m after.
Mixed feelings to be sure.
I’m with you 100%, Barbara. I grew up with well-read parents, and they always stressed the importance of knowing words.
In fact, every time I ran into a word I didn’t know, they never told me the meaning, but always told me to look it up. They instilled in me not only the importance of words and having a large vocabulary, but to love them as well.
We have such a rich language, it seems wrong to not use the right word in favor of an inferior one. Yet, like you, I have mixed feelings, because I don’t want my writing to appear pretentious, or that I’m talking down to my readers.
Like with everything else in life, it’s a matter of balance. And knowing our audience.
I also figure as writers, we can always convey the meaning of a word based on the sentence we use it in, so the reader isn’t forced to keep a dictionary or thesaurus on hand.
I deplore books that choose a simplistic word over one with more nuance. My vocabulary has increased from my long familiarity with authors who weren’t afraid to use the appropriate word. I am currently reading a non-fiction book that uses terms from philosophy that I have never properly learned and I am finding great joy in encountering words that will enrich my vocabulary. Taking the time to think about the words and their meaning and how they more succinctly explain a process or state is part of the excitement of reading and writing. The best authors not only use precise vocabulary but find a way to explain it in the text. I recently read a magazine article that explained a word I had never understood (ontology) in a way in which I could easily understand and remember. A novelist who immediately came to mind when I read this post is Madeleine L’Engle who was not afraid to use great words. I, myself, will never use words like nuncheon (which both interrupted the flow and baffled me by its inclusion in a modern novel), but subservience and obfuscate are both delightful words with shades of meaning that can give texture to writing when correctly employed.
I have an extensive vocabulary, mostly due to the fact that I am a voracious reader. I love words. I do not underestimate the power of meaning that just the right word can convey. But I also believe in clear, concise writing. There is an important balance. We don’t want to confuse readers or boast our skills with a thesaurus. Verdant and lush green mean essentially the same thing, but will my readers know that? We should keep out audience in mind. Just yesterday I decided to use a simpler word for the sake of clarity. It caused me a pang, but it was a better word for my audience.
In the academic world, and also in the world of elites (journalists and politicians), a person’s intellectual capability is judged by how well and consistently a group member writes and speaks.
It’s really a matter of mind training, not intelligence. Students learn to think elitist PC by what they read and hear. That’s why, when they step out of the group, they must concentrate on “dumbing down” both vocabulary and sentence structure.
I opt to write the way I talk or the way I want my characters to talk, with an occasional $5 word that surprises even me. I’ve often asked my doctor after he gives his medical explanation to please explain it in English. Big words that force me to the dictionary are educational at times, but a bit annoying at other times.
Hear, hear. I’m with you, Loretta.
“…if anyone thinks your writing is too simplistic, be glad, for you are friendly and approachable. And you place communication over eagerness to show off your ability to consult a thesaurus.”
This sentence encouraged me. I often wonder if I’m writing too simplistically because I haven’t used deep words or more of them even if I could. Thank you!
That said, as an English literature major (years ago), I have balked at the relaxed grammar and “dumbing down” of our literature over the past 20 years. But as much as I hate it (yes, I did start a sentence with “but”), it is what readers want. Unfortunately, we’ve become lazy in an indulgent, instant society. Still, I’d like to think that we can slip a few challenging words or sentences in here and there to keep our more literary readers awake and feeling fulfilled. As with all things, I suppose we strive for a happy balance of a continuous flow of writing that will also on occasion make our readers stop and consider the words and a deeper meaning.
We authors are faced with a dilemma: do we use simple verbs and modify them with adverbs to convey the desired meaning or do we use precise verbs that are unknown by the less widely read? The same question applies to nouns and adjectives.
What about nouns used alone? Is the horse a stallion, stud, gelding (poor thing), mare, dam, colt, filly, or foal? Would you rather ride a roan or a piebald? We’re not supposed to use the same noun for the same thing too often, so we can’t keep writing “horse.” What if you write historical fiction? Is that bladed instrument that injured the hero a broadsword, gladius, scimitar, cutlass, saber, or rapier? I realize he can bleed to death from a gash, cut, or incision from any of them but probably not from a nick.
My primary peeve in the dumbing down of the language is the criticism of using simple, progressive, and perfect tenses of verbs to show the time dependence of the action. “She ran” is not the same as “she had run” (perfect tense action performed in the past and already completed) and “she was running” (a progressive action continuing over some time in an ongoing fashion). Note that “she was running” is active voice, not passive.
I vote for using the more descriptive noun or verb and letting our readers figure them out from context. I’m not going to insult their intelligence by assuming they can’t handle anything more than a 5th grader can.
Absolutely agree with you about five-dollar words, Tamela.
Certainly, there are times where they’re appropriate and relevant, but in fiction, for instance, too many five-dollar words may stop a reader cold.
With exception of a few newcomers to town, my fictional characters would almost always opt for the simpler word choice. Because my stories are set in the Ozarks, my characters’ language reflects the regional dialect/euphemisms of the area. Anything else would seem stilted and unrealistic.
While I adore the beloved classics and appreciate the era in which they were written, some of my favorite stories in recent years are the ones without the flowery words and endless pages of description. Great writing is a given, but it’s the story I remember most.
A prepossessing point, Tamela. I will forthwith ratiocinate it and ascribe my conclusions to today’s apprisal.
Ratiocinate. I love it. I’ve been ratiocinating all the time, and I didn’t even know it!
Tamela, this reminds me of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. He focuses on nonfiction writing, but I think his book could improve anyone’s writing! He has a chapter that focuses solely on pointing out how ridiculous writing can become when we try to pump it up with big words.
He had such hilarious examples of sentences that said a lot of things, but when you simplified it, the sentence said nothing!
“To me, Modernism is taking the navel-gazing insecurity that Immanuel Kant started almost too far.
“Painting just parts of people or things leaves no room for showing a realistic scene on a flat surface, and makes the painting stand alone, freed of the connection we’d expect between the picture and the world we see.
“Mondrian missed the trap of just being a rebel by using both colour and composition that were traditional; more so than you see in Monet’s later work. What sets Mondrian apart is that he coupled conventional techniques to an abstract subject.”
That was tough, and in trying to do this I realized that these five-dollar words exist because we really need them sometimes. They sharpen our accuracy.
It’s an irony that the article speaks to art, as I consider words to be my palette of colors. And I tend to resist syllabic limits. Must I only use ‘red’ because someone out there might fail to comprehend crimson, oxblood, scarlet or burgundy?
Would anyone think of telling Rembrandt, Gauguin or even Bob Ross to use only 6 or 7 colors, because it’s simpler for most people to identify them quickly? One shudders contemplating the Mona Lisa in just green, yellow and blue?
Do painters begin painting by assuming the general audience has a 4th grade art level, and thus limit themselves?
Now I like a clear image in both art and writing. If no one can figure out what you’re saying due to pompous, bombastic verbosity (big words) writing is pointless. But neither will I make all my texts read like “Goodnight Moon” for fear some under-developed soul may have to reference a dictionary.
I appreciate the nuanced shades of color that make a canvas image. Art can illuminate, inspire and educate. It strikes me the best authors can do the same.
Tamela, thank you for your thoughts. I’ve recently considered my words too simplistic, but that is the way I write. Accepting them as friendly and readable is so much better.
My current favorite $5 word is: verisimilitude. The occasional $3 word is perfect if it puts my reader in the middle of my story world.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Wow, this has been a great discussion. I’m enjoying seeing all the different takes on $5 words!
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Tamela. I once had an undergraduate professor whose feedback on an assignment was so difficult to understand that I had to red it with a dictionary nearby. By the time I finished the end of the sentences, I had forgotten what he meant at the beginning!
My favorite five dollar word is “explicate,” which means to explain thoroughly.
My re-write looks something like this: “Mondrian’s art used to be pretty thrilling to all of us, but, when we compare it to Monet today, his work is too over-the-top and drab.”
I once put a book down after the first few pages due to the wordy literary style. It was so confusing!
I do like to reference the thesaurus quite a bit, not so much to find a variety of words to use. I browse the options where I often get ideas to form my thoughts on paper. 🙂
I love this topic! I once had an editor say he wanted to publish my article, as long as I could do something different with one sentence. I had to look up the words he used because I had no idea what he wanted me to change! I loved the opportunity to learn, and I’ve really learned so much from this editor in the years since!
I do think, however, that our choice of words might depend on why we are writing. Expensive words roll out beautifully, much like the art that a previous poster mentioned. If my goal as a non-fiction writer is for my audience to learn something about faith that will change their life, then I must forfeit the beauty sometimes for something that is simple and easy to understand. Especially if the concept itself is new or complicated to the reader. When I am writing for this purpose, I find the best way to communicate is in a conversational style, as if I’m sitting across the table having coffee with them. So often, when I am giving counsel to someone in person, I spend a great deal of time finding words the person seems to understand, so that they can really process the idea I’m trying to teach them.
“Ubiquitous” (present or found everywhere) is a word I only recently began using. And I rarely use “ulterior” because most people use it in a negative sense. It means hidden, but not necessarily bad.
I don’t enjoy dumbed-down writing. In learning foreign languages, you discover certain words which are work-arounds for words you can’t remember at the moment. Simple words like “go” and “do” are ready substitutes. But when authors don’t bother to find a more interesting verb or use the clearest tense of a verb, I feel like the writing is grammar school level. Thanks for the stimulating discussion, Tamela.
Want to read a few chapters with stimulating vocabulary and slicing wit? I strongly recommend Charles Krauthammer’s “Things that Matter”. It’s brilliance on paper.
YA writer piping in, here. For me, it depends on my target audience. Sure, John Green has helped paved the way with his penchant for $5 words, but even my book hound of a teen will admit to skipping some of his words because she doesn’t care.
Does that drive me crazy? Yup. But for the YA audience, we cater to the crowd of instantaneous news and word phrases that pass into and out of creation within weeks.
I try to work in my more descriptive verbs to make up for the degradation of English. It suits my readers.
My $5 word? It’d be a shame to limit myself to just one. 🙂
A thought to ponder: the literary greats were writing commercial fiction in their day. Does “commercial” today have to mean less than the best literary quality?
Second question, Tamela. Is it the number of syllables or the rarity of the usage that makes it a $5 word? Number of syllables can only be fixed by misspelling, but rarity can be fixed by writers using them enough to make them uncommon instead of rare.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Carol, I think commercial fiction is every bit as good, and sometimes better, than “literary” fiction. And it’s challenging to write because an author must write within the confines of his or her selected genre. For instance, romance writers must write a fresh romance, but stay within the guidelines.
Writers such as Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt (I could name many others) may or may not have written what is considered “literary fiction” but their writing is outstanding.
Unfortunately, some “literary” writers don’t follow any rules and just tag their work as “literary” but no one would read it no matter what the label.
On the other hand, brilliant writers such as Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, John Steinbeck, Shirley Jackson, Susan Howatch,…I could go on, deserve to be read. Why? Because their brilliant ideas were written with wit. And yes, their work had/has commercial appeal. And it continues to “hold up” with time.
So I’m not sure I’d define the difference as a matter of quality, but of taste and style. Great writers can be found all across any good library.
As for the $5 word? It tends to hang out with other $5 words, with all of them raising their eyebrows at characters such as “on fleek.” Here are a few: maar, thob, and yare. But their cousins, scaldabanco, eleutheromania, and quadragintesimal think themselves too groovy to hang out with them.
Or perhaps the simplest way to decide is that the $5 word is not recognized by your computer’s spell check function.
I love Georgette Heyer. I discovered her in high school at the same time I discovered Jane Austen. I’d say anything that was written more than 60 years ago and is still being printed in new editions 35 years after the author’s death despite its “old-fashioned” descriptive style has true literary quality.
I have GOT to find a way to incorporate scaldabanco into one of my stories now. It’s probably my eleutheromania that makes me question the constraints of today’s favored writing style.
Christine L. Henderson
Besides writing women’s fiction, I write children’s picture book stories and easy readers. I’m always hearing that we need to be careful not to write past their age level comprehension.
Then there’s the Fancy Nancy books which have a plethora of words that need a glossary. So I guess it boils down to the story and how well it is written.
Thanks to you and all the commenters for a thought-provoking discussion.
I have mixed feelings on using the “five-dollar words”. Sometimes they are necessary to convey exact meanings; the easier-to-understand words just won’t do the job.
However, writing is communication. If a reader can’t figure out what a sentence or paragraph means, communication isn’t happening. Both the writer’s time and the reader’s are wasted.
I think the words used in a book depend on what the book is and the average reader of it. If it’s an historical novel, say, a Regency romance, then there are going to be five dollar words to be accurate. [Think Georgette Heyer] I’m a nurse and I like reading medical romances. To be believable the doctor or nurse would say the patient has a five centimeter laceration [cut], and a broken arm is fractured. Military stories have their own five dollar words. And if you’re not reading fiction but rather a technical book then there are likely to be five dollar words. I think we need to go back to the saying; “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.” In some circumstances a fifty cent word won’t do, but in others it will do very nicely [and nice is a fifty cent word writers shudder at]. I think it takes common sense and sensitivity. We need to think of our audience…not wear them out with words like ‘indubitably’ but at the same time not talk down to them.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Yes, and I think readers who’ve developed a love for a genre will soon learn the lingo. Good point, Diana.
I’m late to this conversation, but it is a cause near to my heart. I know a lot of adult believers with childhood reading skills. Most of them are already ashamed of their lack of ability. I want to encourage them with my words, so I choose every nickel word that works, and I try not to go over the $5 mark without a 5-cent explanation. It isn’t dumbing down the big thought–it is conveying the big thought in the simplest format.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Shirlee, thank you for the reminder that reading abilities vary. Good point!
Tamela Hancock Murray
Rebekah – A Hilarious Video! I did understand that the product is available soon…
Modernism took Kant’s “can’t” and said, we can do that, better. The Modernist’s wanted to test the limits of what can and can’t be done with brushstrokes on a flat canvas and still have it be a painting. Mondrian tried to break all the rules of the past. In his day, it looked like he did. Now we see that he too was still hemmed in by the shape of the canvas and tied down by old ideas about color. In later works, Monet was able to push these limits a bit further.