The thing with the words

Can you use short words? Can you use just a few words? Does it help? Would it help the people who read the words?

Can you say a lot with a little?


Many thanks to the rather wonderful xkcd site for this explanation of Saturn V using only the 1000 most common words in English.

I have a love-hate relationship with vocabulary. I do know many, many words. I use far fewer in writing, and a tiny subset verbally if it can be helped. Frequently I cannot remember the mot juste in the mother tongue these days. Not helpful when playing my parents at Scrabble online and the only words allowed are words none of us know. It turns out there are many, many words I do not know.

I am working on a book. I have had an idea for constraining my writing. Apparently lots of other people do this sort of thing. I am including a character with a learning disability, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should limit the words I am allowed to use, either by how common they are in English or maybe by whether it could be seen to be read neatly in the context it is set in. This exercise would actually be far from simple; I would need to be certain which words and versions of words I would be allowed, structure and plan carefully and try hard to make the prose read well. For example, I stumbled across something today which made me worry that perhaps this may result in something quite wooden:

A text for students of English:                                                                      It was a bright sunny morning the week before Christmas. Grandma Burns was knitting busily. The snow was deep and its crust shone like silver. Suddenly she heard sad sighs outside her door. She opened the door and there was Peter and Jimmy Rice, two very poor little boys. Their faces were in their hands and they were crying.

The same text written for native speakers of English:

Grandma Burns sat knitting busily in the sun one bright morning the week before Christmas. The snow lay deep, and the hard crust glistened like silver. All at once she heard little sighs of grief outside her door. When she opened it there sat Peter and Jimmy Rice, two very poor little boys, with their faces in their hands; and they were crying.

I think I am going to need to play with the idea and try out some different ways of running with it. I’d love it if the book I write could be accessed by people with a simpler range of vocabulary. Vocabulary can unlock so much emotion, nuance, connection and depth. However, it also has the capacity to act as a language barrier within a language. I have worked with many young offenders and students with low academic ability and have wanted to communicate meaningfully with them without patronising them or imitating patterns of speech I can’t use honestly. (Dja get me?)


3 responses to “The thing with the words

  1. I have often wondered how hard it would be to cut out all ambiguity in language – for example, if talking to a person who is very literal, would it be possible to remove all metaphor, idiom, dual-meaning words and so forth? I’ve not tried but it is surprising how many words wouldn’t meet that threshold once you start thinking about it.

  2. Lucy, you do write the most intriguing posts. (I get you!) My adopted daughters are Israeli Arabs (who came to live with me 31 years ago when their Catholic mother threw them out after they were born again). You may remember we met at IBTS in Prague in 2009 when I came for my oldest granddaughter’s graduation from the CAT program. Her mother has been teaching music in a private Christian school in Haifa for 18 years; she finally got her degree in music education a year ago, and followed that with a second B.A. in English education. I find I have often had to explain to her (and to her children) English idioms. Are the Amelia Bedelia books available in the U.K.? They’re hysterical; your kids would love them. I wish you continued success with your writing – via blog or book!

    • Thank you, and of course I remember you! We do have the Amelia Bedelia books and the children love them. They do have a great sense of humour, even if the stories have an American context and dated language. 🙂

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