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Tuesday, 26 July 2016


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Mike, it's not that writers have small vocabularies; their readers do. Newspapers, for instance, follow a style guide that makes sure that they can be read and understood by someone with only an 8th-grade education.

Most writers and reporters I know have massive vocabularies, much like how most musicians I know have large repertoires of chords and scales.

Most writing is like most paid gigs: you can play Jazz at home, but you're getting paid to bang out three chord pop songs for drunks. Same goes for journalism.

I think Robert Fripp put it best:

"The business of the amateur musician is music. The business of the professional musician is business."

When you're a pro, you write for your audience, not for yourself. (Which is why Thomas Pynchon wrote technical manuals until he became a published author, for instance.)

[That factoid about writers not scoring the most highly on vocabulary tests comes from the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, which has been testing high-functioning people for vocabulary level for more than 100 years. --Mike]

I'll be staying in Brooklyn, only a ten minute walk from the Brooklyn Museum, the first weekend in August and plan to see the show.

Having just read both of those articles I have to agree.

Schjeldahl irritates at least as often as he illuminates. What can I say about a critic who thinks any representational painting that does not include pavement is schlock?

And slang can be as difficult as "big words" Years ago I heard an interview with Paul McCartney. When asked what he thought of people covering his songs he replied that he was "quite chuffed". I still have not met an American who knew whether that means pleased or offended. (It means pleased and flattered) A good thing he was not more pleased as then he would have said "chuffed to bits".
In his defense the interview was done by the BBC, and I wonder if he would have used that slang to a US interviewer. Probably not I would guess.


I know "chuffed" and "chuffed to bits," but the one I still can't get is "bloody-minded." Still have no clear feeling for what is meant by that. To be fair, there's probably American slang I don't know either. --Mike]

As I was learning to write for a living (some time ago) I was encouraged to keep my sentences on a 5th grade reading level. Seems to me that maybe MS Word helped with that determination.

If The New Yorker eds would listen I would tell them find more writers like John McPhee, less like Schjeldahl and Hua Hsu.

While on the subject of pet-linguistic-peeves, I have a particular distaste for the habit in some fields of study to invent new, fancy-sounding words or phrases for concepts that have existing, perfectly good names.

Sadly, I cannot think of a good example right now.

Avoid twenty dollar words when pocket change will do.

"Exceptionally high vocabularies are impediments to communication."

Well Mike, you have surprised me. This little line is an unusually simplistic take for you to deliver. If by high we mean large, then this does not necessarily lead to impediment. Similarly, if by high we mean knowledge of words not often used, this too need not be an impediment.

A high or low vocabulary is not the issue. Rather, it is the ability to select the right words and place them in the right order, served up with good punctuation, that makes or breaks communication. A high or large vocabulary means the user has a broader choice, an opportunity to select words that utilize the subtleties of language to more effectively deliver a point.

Of course this also means that a well equipped toolbox is useless in the hands of the person who knows what the tools are, but not what each one does or how it is altered by its relationship with the other tools.

Someone who is "bloody minded" would be a member of the awkward squad. Hope this helps, chuffed to bits if it does :-)

Schjeldahl is IMHO a pretty good critic, but he does this word thing a lot. That demiurge sentence you quoted can't even be puzzled out; I wonder if there's a word missing.

Usually, this kind of language is the mark of a beginner, which Schjeldahl emphatically is not. Every summer I go to New York, to a convention of thriller writers (both professionals and beginners) where I teach a class or two. One thing I emphasize is that a poor choice of language will kill a novel -- and by 'poor choice' I mean too many unfamiliar words. As I said, this problem is really the mark of the beginner, someone who wants to demonstrate how smart he is. Most readers, though, will go into a book believing that the author is smart -- after all, he's published a book. What they want from the author is not big words, but clear communication. Maybe Schjeldahl feels he is writing for an elite (which would be a mistake, in my opinion,) but even the elite would have a problem with the demiurge sentence.

By the way, I would pick a bit with your use of the word "factoid," a word which was invented by Norman Mailer in his book "Marilyn" (I think) to mean a non-fact which has been repeated so often that it is now accepted as a fact, even though it isn't. Stories about celebrities and politicians are rife with them. There has been some word drift with "factoid,"which some people will now say means a trivial, unimportant fact, but that wasn't its original, quite-clear meaning.

After reading and commenting on this blog for quite a few years now, my writing skills have improved no end.* I used to struggle with sentence construction but I find it far easier now.

After a very embarrassing error in one of my early comments that was quickly pointed out by other readers, I always check my facts, no matter how sure I am of them.

I try very hard to omit needless words, though sometimes I find that the addition of two or three words just nudges a dull or unclear sentence into shape. I've also learned to reduce the number of commas almost to an acceptable minimum, in the first draft. A high standard of written English is set here and I like to be up to the mark.

Now, if you want a good useful word, try 'set'. More meanings than you can ever dream of, and in most if not all cases, the meaning depends on the context that this word is set in. There's two examples here.

* By a very large amount.

I remember reading a similar factoid in my youth, to the effect that politicians are not the most intelligent persons in our midst. They too, tend to be just about or slightly over average. That surprised me at the time, but not these days!

"[That factoid about writers not scoring the most highly on vocabulary tests comes from the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, which has been testing high-functioning people for vocabulary level for more than 100 years. --Mike]"

That got me thinking and I wonder if the reason for that is that many fields have such deep and complex jargon, that simply by knowing your profession's jargon, you score higher on sheer number of vocabulary words?

Writers, being generalists by nature, won't have a deep well of jargon to pad out their vocab resume.

Am I the only person who loves to find new words in things I read? I like the idea of continuing learning, and have no problem with looking them up, which is not so much a problem with access to the internet these days. And absquatulate sounds better than absconded. Might have to use it one day.

I only know gossypol (IIRC!) because back when I subscribed to Scientific American* in the 80's it was an up and coming component of a male birth control pill, and seemed to be mentioned in every other issue.

*Now, that was a magazine that was dense and had to be read very slowly.

A sad reflection on our times.
Oh, if only we had a thousand Brodskys to impose upon us of the language of the soul and remind us of its undeniable inevitability among this barren society.

A response I sometimes see on blogs and Internet fora these days—TL;DR, for "Too long; didn't read."—is one that irritates me on many levels, especially when it's followed by a dismissal or rebuttal of the article in question. It identifies the responder, to me anyway, as lazy, narcissistic, and/or arrogant.

Even more irritating, especially when I'm actually interested in the subject and would like to learn more about it, is when the article or blog is written by writers like Schjeldahl, whose agenda seems to be promoting their superiority rather than communicating their ideas. Perhaps we should respond with TS;DR—too sesquipedalian; didn't read!

"Bloody-minded" is a wonderful term, Mike, and modern life gives ample opportunity for its application. "Contrarian" comes close to being a synonym, but to be bloody minded is to be aggressively contrarian, to go out of your way to push your stubbornly disagreeable nature into other people's faces.

If you think about it for seven seconds I'll bet you can name at least two bloody-minded people who have impinged on your consciousness in the last 24 hours. (I could name about six on a moment's notice, but my naturally sweet disposition forbids me.)

Once at a gathering, talking to a an older, educated man, I talked about my art and mentioned that currently I mostly used Gouache paint. I threw in parenthetically that gouache simple is "opaque watercolor paint".

He got so delighted! "opaque watercolor paint! Wow. I've heard that word a hundred times, but nobody has ever defined it before."

Mike, "bloody minded" is generally an almalgam of being perverse, passive aggressive, or acting like a jerk, but taken up a notch. When you finally visit the UK and correctly call someone out for being bloody minded, you'll feel quite chuffed.

It's definitely true that most average people have a limited vocabulary and that doesn't seem to stop them communicating, but it does make them far less eloquent to my mind. I often see uncomprehending looks on someone's face even when using words that I had previously considered in the normal range such as quotidian or mellifluous to use a couple of recent examples. Subtlety in communication is more dependent on good vocabulary and substituting a less pertinent word often changes the intended meaning slightly, not that it's that important. I think the more that you read the better your vocabulary becomes, depending of course upon the authors and genres chosen, so it sort of goes both ways.

Curiously though, haiku poetry, which is a favoured style for me, uses common language as a prerequisite, whereas western style poetry, especially that from the more elitist 17th or 18th century English lineage, is much more flowery and highfalutin. I suspect that some of the vocabulary used by writers such as Schjedahl is a form of the latter to display what they consider a superior intellect.

Bloody -minded as far as I know is similar to obstinate or pig-headed or stubborn.
regards, Simon

I knew there was a reason Cormack McCarthy's "The Road" was so popular! Short sentences. Anyone could read it. Good story.

One of the best books to help with simple writing: The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers. Proving that officialese is timeless, Gowers was asked to produce the book in 1948 to improve the written work of civil servants. Highly recommended, although civil servants everywhere have more to gain through obfuscation than clarity. Oops, edit "obfuscation" to "weasel words".

One person who has grasped the power of simple language: Donald Trump. Other politicians take note. And quickly.

Finally, does "Who Shot Sports" cover the unsung heroes of sports photography, soccer mums?

Yours in brevity,

You might be interested in Randall Munroe's book "Thing Explainer". It attempts to explain complex science and technology topics, using only the thousand most common words in English.


An example can be read in his comic XKCD, #1133 :


When playing "hangman" with friends, I always had good luck with "rhythm". No vowels, throws people for a loop wasting their first 5 guesses.

For any professional, and in fact anybody who wants to communicate to more than a few personal friends, fitting your language to your target audience is always key. Actually, it matters to your personal friends, too, but they'll call you on it to your face if you're doing it wrong.

But also, producing the intended reaction in your intended audience can be important.

In my experience, writers have large vocabularies pretty frequently, but nearly always use them judiciously.

Samuel Johnson's advice, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” might be extended. "Whenever you find a word that you are particularly proud to have in your vocabulary, strike it out."

[Samuel Johnson was one of the least likeable literary characters, wasn't he? I made it halfway through Boswell and had to stop. I really dislike that guy. If Dr. Johnson were alive today he'd probably be Dennis Miller, i.e., a bloviating knowitall who, despite trying way too hard to sound like he's smart, is more often wrong than not. --Mike]

'Newspapers, for instance, follow a style guide that makes sure that they can be read and understood by someone with only an 8th-grade education.'

Sadly, most newspapers nowadays appear to use those with 8th grade education to write their articles.

Many seem to rely on Twitter and the like for substantiation and few elect to research beyond their Facebook account.

Spelling and grammatical errors abound, and no senior editor (if one exists anymore) appears to care.

"Bloody-minded"... an inclination to say and do things no matter the cost, or even because of the cost. To find an example it suffices to type "Arthur Scargill bloody-minded" into google (although I guess that requires some knowledge of British history. He was head of the Coal Miners union, who went toe-to-toe with Margaret Thatcher):
"Arthur, king of coal, has abdicated from his shrinking empire ... Yet to those who came to know him well, the Scargill bloody-minded streak"
"The bloody-mindedness of the government that was determined to defeat the miners at all costs"

As for critics with bloated vocabularies, my strong suspicion is that many art critics do not see their role as communication, but as price-fluffers*. That means they write to impress, or to flatter the imagined intellectual superiority of their reader, so that he or she will feel comforted in their decision to spend a large amount of money on something of no intrinsic value, hence maintaining the symbiotic relationship of the art-market and the art critic.

(*) Does the average reader know the role of a fluffer in the pornographic film industry? And why did I just write out "pornographic" when "porn" would have been equally as communicative?


You mean to say that a certain gossypol-colored politican, associated with fylfot admirers, is about to absquatulate with the U.S. presidency (despite our European obloquy)?

Roger Bradbury's witty post alludes to Strunk & White's classic little book 'The Elements of Style', which remains a very useful guide to clarity in writing. It's a rare paragraph that couldn't be improved by stripping out redundant words or verbal padding (Strunk's favorite example: "the fact that"...)
Edward Weston famously described photographic composition as 'the strongest way of seeing'. Writing strikes me the same way; it's a matter of refining and boiling down the words into the simplest, clearest, strongest way to convey a precise meaning. Occasionally an obscure or academic word is the only way to say exactly what you mean; but far more often simple, plain language is best.

I'm still trying to figure out how to pronounce "Schjeldahl" and "Hua Hsu".

Yes, bloody-minded is s/he who sees an opportunity to jam a monkey-wrench in the works and does so. Got a plan? S/he'll try to foil it. Think it's all very clear? S/he'll prove it isn't. Think you know how to do something? S/he'll give you fifty reasons why it can't be done.

The use of an extensive vocabulary may hinder the quick conveyance of ideas and may not be advisable when writing for magazines or blogs where quick communication is preferable and a mouse-click can cut off the writer in the middle of a phrase. In literature though, which also is writing, a vast vocabulary can sometimes be preferable. I dare anyone to read Borges without "google search" ready at hand. I sometimes even feel that if I didn't make use of my dictionary, then it wasn't a good read.

Reader's Digest, It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power.
Every month during my youth.

Writing is talking with a pencil. Once I got away from grammarians and vocabulary snobs my writing improved tremendously.

In case anyone would like to know when:

“Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” runs through Jan. 8 at the Brooklyn Museum . . ."

We do visit Brooklyn occasionally, but will likely miss this exhibit.

The Brooklyn is, BTW, a great museum.

The tendency of western intellectuals to adopt a sesquipedalian argot could be regarded as a form of ethnocentric solipsism, and is therefore, most likely, ineluctable.


Re writing:

I have been in the consulting business for over 40 years. At the start of my career, I mimicked the long convoluted sentences and paragraphs that my older and more experienced colleagues could dash off in an instant. I have to say I was pretty good at it.

About 10 years later, I began a series of overseas assignments in developing countries and did this for 10 years or so. Many of the folks I encountered spoke English as a second or third language. They could not make heads nor tails out of my consultantese. What the hell was I trying to say??

I re-learned how to write during that time. My style became short sentences with clear meanings, very easy to parse and understand. This was all excruciatingly important, since a large part of my work involved training and writing training manuals.

These days I write and edit proposals to prospective clients. On the editing side, I shudder at some of the words that appear on paper by some of my colleagues. I see paragraph-long run-on sentences, paragraphs with no structure, improper word choices, and other issues that make me wonder how these folks made it through high school and college English classes.

It is swell to have a huge vocabulary. But if people cannot figure out what you are saying, you are just as much an ass as if you were babbling.

I read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style at least once a year these days (and there is a nice illustrated version from Penguin Books). I highly recommend it.

When I have to look up words in fiction, that word had better mean just the right thing, very precisely, and better than other words. Most of the time when I do it, they don't, in which case they're just deliberate obfuscation (a word which some people consider obscure, but is part of my daily vocabulary).

(I tend to rank in the top .5% on vocabulary tests, and was evaluated by the professionals at the Purdue research nursery school as having the vocabulary and sentence structures of a college freshman when I was 3 years old. I've improved since then.)

I generally try to write as clearly and simply, using the simplest words, as I can. But on the other hand I don't shy away from complex sentence structures, or big words, where I feel they're needed. I refuse to change my meaning merely for the sake of simplicity.

A few years ago, decades probably, it was popular in art criticism and philosophy to to use a lot of jargon, and to obscure your meaning with needless complexity. I detest that. You still see it quite often in the statements of artists and curators introducing shows, and in some art criticism. Presumably it's meant to convey that the writer is trying to talk about something ineluctable, but almost always it reveals instead that their thinking is muddled, and their skills at communicating poor. Usually doesn't bode well for the show you're about to see.

That said, I delight in finding obscure words on the internet, because looking them up is (usually, but not always) so easy. I do regret, though, that the Oxford English Dictionary is on a subscription model (or was last I checked). That's really the best, most entertaining place to look up words.

Not "ineluctable" - for God's sake; ineffable. I meant to say ineffable.

So much for ten dollar words. From now on I'm keeping it to three syllables or fewer.

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