On Big Words, or: Should the Audience Own a Dictionary?


There.  Done.



Oh, alright, I’ll answer the question properly.

I brought up a topic last post where I asked myself the question of whether a book should contain words that the audience doesn’t know, and must look up.  In true Whimsy and Metaphor fashion, I subsequently failed entirely to answer this question.
I’ll say one thing for this technique; it reduces my chances of running out of things to talk about.

I’ve seen this debate a fair bit, online and real life, and it’s one that can only really be answered with ‘a bit of one, a bit of the other’.  Both sides have a point, though, so here’s what goes through my head when I try to organise my thoughts on the topic.

Readers Shouldn’t Have to Use A Dictionary

There’s a big push back at the moment against overcomplicating writing.  It’s basically the tenets of the Plain English movement – writing is communication, so what’s the point of writing something that nobody can understand?
There’s also been a kick for many, many decades – the ‘window’ theory of writing, where the writing itself should be a means to see the story happening, not an attraction in and of itself.  Oscar Wilde: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim”.  Combine with the desire to communicate as clearly as possible, and it’s not surprising you have a group of people insisting that the reader shouldn’t have to reach for the dictionary in order to read a book.
Besides that, as I said last time, a good portion of new writers have a tendency to reach for the thesaurus in order to sound ‘literary’, and you end up with abominations of sentences where it’s not quite clear what’s going on, but crystal clear that the writer didn’t know what the words actually mean.   For writers trying to defeat that temptation, “don’t use a word that’ll send your reader to the dictionary” is a pretty good rule of thumb to curb that habit.  Like all writing rules, though, it can get out of hand.

Readers Should Have to Use a Dictionary

On the other hand, I (and I’m sure a lot of authors) learned a lot of my vocabulary through reading.  Ever had a word in your vocabulary that you knew the definition of, knew the connotations of and how to use, but never learned how to pronounce, because you’ve never heard it out loud?  I was 16 before I learned that ‘epitome’ wasn’t pronounced to rhyme with ‘bone’, but I got bonus marks for using it correctly in an essay at 13.  I read it somewhere, and I either asked a parent the meaning or went to the dictionary, and it was part of my vocabulary after that.  The first thing I suggest to people who tell me they want to improve their vocabularies is to read, often and as widely as possible, and with a dictionary next to them.

This goes especially for writers who want to write literary fiction, specific genres, or specific types within a genre where the audience is assumed to be “OK” with learning new words.  Hard science fiction will happily make its readers look up a word.  So will a lot of fantasy.  I’m a little leery of saying it’s because the audience for those books is nerds (who like learning and thus don’t mind looking up new words), because I know nerds don’t only read those genres, and of course, we’ve all seen some really stupid fantasy books out there.  Nor do I want to imply that there can’t be intelligent chick lit or crime fiction out there, because that’s certainly not true.  But whatever the reason, there are genres that are more accepting of new and unfamiliar words than others.

Readers Should Only Use A Dictionary When It’s Unavoidable

I mentioned before about hard science fiction.  The kind of words a reader is most likely to learn from that is science jargon.  This is probably a case of dictionary-by-necessity.  Someone like me, who stopped studying science after high school, but still likes to read hard sci-fi is likely to come across terms that aren’t in their vocabulary.  I look up those terms, I read the book.  It’s kind of the price of entry.

In other cases, where the word is just a word in a sentence, no jargon or second meanings involved, this principle can be applied also.  Say you’re describing a liar.  Maybe it’s simpler to say “he was lying”.  But maybe what “he” has done isn’t actually lying, it’s just misrepresentation of the truth.  So it would be more correct to say “He was disingenuous”.  That’s a good word, a solid word, and a useful one.  It means exactly what you need it to mean.  A fair chunk of readers will know what it means already.  A fair chunk may not.  You’d be pretty safe sending some to the dictionary with that one.
Advocates of the first point – that readers shouldn’t use a dictionary – will argue “but you could just say “he told a half-truth”, or “he wasn’t sincere”, or “he only told some of the facts”.  They’re equally simple, but more precise than the first one.  I’d say that they don’t quite hit the meaning of ‘disingenuous’, though.  None of them hold exactly the same connotation.  It comes down, here, to which is closer to the sense the writer wants to give of the situation, rather than which one is ‘better for the reader’.

My Advice…

as usual, comes in the form of a question.

“Is it the best possible word?”

If it is, then use it.  Send some readers to the dictionary, broaden their horizons.  Account for audience (for example, ‘the best possible word’ will be very different for a middle-grade novel than a hard sci-fi novel, and that’s down to genre), but use the word that makes the novel work best.

If you aren’t fully acquainted with the word and its various meanings, the answer to this question is ‘no’.  I don’t care if you find out later that it was, in fact, the right word.  The answer.  Is no.

If you can think of a better word, whether it’s simpler or more complex, use that one. I mean, hell, it’s the better word.  Why would you not?

I’ll always say to use the simplest correct word.  While a few trips to the dictionary, in my opinion, isn’t a bad thing, sending the reader there every second sentence isn’t doing them any favours in terms of staying immersed.  Remember: you’re still writing to communicate.


Your Advice

So what about all you fine folks?  To dictionary or not to dictionary?  Does using a dictionary throw you out of a story?  Is reader immersion more important than nitpicking for the absolute perfect word?  I can’t possibly be the only person who wants to discuss this.

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