Deliberate Practice: Plain and Fancy Words

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” ~ Winnie the Pooh

Wordle cloud
Created with http://www.wordle.net

One of my favorite books when I was in high school wasn’t a novel or a biography or even a narrative of any kind: It was a well-thumbed red paperback of Roget’s Thesaurus.

In hindsight, I used a thesaurus in exactly the way I now tell my students not to use it: I looked for fancy words to replace plain ones. I searched for words that were more capacious, commodious, humongous, substantial, super colossal, tremendous, walloping. In short, longer. The problem is that longer words are often not the words that best convey our meaning, as William Strunk and E.B. White knew so well:

14. Avoid fancy words.

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo -Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide: gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context. Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.

If you admire fancy words, if every sky is beauteous, every blonde curvaceous, every intelligent child prodigious, if you are tickled by discombobulate, you will have a bad time with Reminder 14. What is wrong, you ask, with beauteous? No one knows, for sure. There is nothing wrong, really, with any word all are good, but some are better than others. A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear. The Elements of Style

There was another, less pedantic reason I loved that thesaurus, though. I enjoyed scanning lists of words, learning new ones, seeing them play off one another and hearing them in my head.

While misuse of a thesaurus can produce graceless and insincere writing, wise use can lead to greater precision, variety, and depth.

Here are a few deliberate writing practice ideas for honing your “plain and fancy”word skills.

1. Use a thesaurus when the word you are using isn’t quite right. For example, if you are trying to describe how a character is worried or how you are worried about something, but worried seems too broad, a thesaurus can help you to hone your meaning to apprehensive, disturbed, fearful, on edge, tormented, or uneasy.

2. Look up the derivations of synonyms for a common word to see and hear the difference in tone between Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots (www.dictionary.reference.com allows you to switch easily between a dictionary and a thesaurus for this exercise). For example:

TALL

Origin:
before 1000; Middle English:  big, bold, comely, proper, ready, Old English getæl  (plural getale ) quick, ready, competent; cognate with Old High German gizal  quick

ELEVATED

Origin:
1490–1500;  < Latin ēlevātus  lightened, lifted up (past participle of ēlevāre )

3. Think of whether your characters would use plain or fancy words, and use a thesaurus to differentiate their speech so as to suggest their personalities.

4. Choose a passage by a favorite author to rewrite, using a thesaurus to change the tone. For example, replace the stricken words of the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to experiment with tone and style:

THE BOY WHO LIVED.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

5. Take a paragraph of your own and analyze it based on plain or fancy words, word derivations, and conscious use of precision for each and every word choice.

Do you use a thesaurus and, if so, how?

10 thoughts on “Deliberate Practice: Plain and Fancy Words

  1. Although I love the thesaurus and used to read it, too! I rarely use one now–except to get some ideas (of how to use a word or get a different look at what I’m trying to say). I almost never actually exchange a word for one I find in the thesaurus. As you say, it’s very useful for making conscious word choices. Great post!

  2. I’m embarrassed to say this, Lisa, but my memory is getting worse. When I’m writing I’ll have a word on the tip of my tongue, as they say, but I can’t for the life of me peal it off for the page. That’s when I go to the online thesaurus and type in the closest I can get until it finally comes to me.

    Closer to your point, in high school I discovered the thesaurus and bought one. I loved it a little too much. 🙂

    • Victoria, I do that, too! So often I don’t know what word I want, so I type in something kind of close in Word then do the right click thing.

      Your memory is just fine. Wait until you get old like me. 😉

  3. I do you use a thesaurus pretty regularly. I choose words that fit the character or scene, but i like to avoid using the same word too often. ‘Sad’ is an example. In one scene the family’s eldest child has died. Well, gee they’re all sad, but their grief lasts for several scenes and a different word will keep it from sounding trite. Also in the thesaurus synonym lists are words that were used more often earlier in the last century, which is the setting of my novel.

    Great post, Lisa!

    • Marcia, what a great example (“sad”)! The time period of about 100 years ago fascinates me. Can’t wait to have your novel on the shelves where I can read it.

  4. I use a thesaurus when writing essays to make me sound smarter…. it seems to be working. But in my creative work I didn’t use it to make my work fancier (thinking, as Stunk and White, that it would be far too pretentious to sound over-flashy) and got told off for having too simple a lexicon! Apparently I underestimated the sophistication of my audience. Writing teachers are just never happy!

  5. What great advice to write by! You’re completely right, synonyms aren’t always interchangeable and it’s a matter of trusting your writer’s gut! Reading this post reminded me of one particular classmate who loved his thesaurus so much that, every time he read his story in front of our English class back in high school, he wasn’t able to pronounce half of the long, complicated words he had decided to plug in to replace the original and more simple ones. It definitely taught me how NOT to use a thesaurus! (I hope!)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: