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Just Because You Can Use That Word In A Sentence Doesn’t Make You Smart

I’m a writer and book-devouring vampire, so naturally I have an ear for words.  It fascinates me to see how we cram two words together to create an entirely new word, or use a tone of voice to completely change the definition of what a word means. 

I’ve grown quite fond of the sarcastic “awesome”, which if I remember correctly was popular back when I was a lot younger.  So not only are we constantly trying to come up with pithy new words (“tweet” anyone?  Have you “unfriended” anyone lately?  Be sure to “Digg” me- wink, wink), but we also recycle things we used to say- it’s not unlike fashion trends.

What is particularly interesting though is how we use words to try to make ourselves appear smarter.

True confession time:

When I was in the 8th grade, a boy that I was very good friends with told me he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore because I used “big words”.


True confession time x2:

My husband still tells me that I use “fancy words” too often.

Now in my defense, my excuse is exactly the same now as it was then.  I read all the time (remember- book-devouring vampire here).  I’m soaking up all sorts of interesting jargon and catch phrases.  I’m rediscovering words that I don’t hear that often.  I love it.  

And so things that I read often flow right out of my mouth no matter who I’m talking too.  I’m not thinking about it.  I just say it. 

But apparently there are people out there that perceive me as puffing out my chest and trying to appear smarter than them by using these BIG words.

Have you thought about how people perceive you by the words you choose?

I was watching a video post today from Jonathan Fields. He and his guest, Julien Smith, discussed people’s perception when bloggers, writers, speakers, etc. use swear words.  (The comments are lively, so the post is definitely worth a gander.)  Here’s another instance where someone’s choice of words colors people’s perception.

So word choice is important.  Word choice can make you stand out. Word choice can polarize.

But digging out a dictionary and slapping a bunch of random words into your story isn’t going to make your story better.  It'll probably make it worse.

Put The Thesaurus Down

I once read a bit of advice about writing dialogue.  It said that using “said” by itself was always better than trying to modify it with an adverb.  (e.g. “she said breathlessly” or “he said angrily” are better off being “he said" and "she said”.)

(This is the part where I stomp my feet a bit because "said" seems so boring!  Off I went in search of things I could say instead of "said".  Thank you Stumbleupon: Other Words For Said.)

So this is what happens.  We start second guessing ourselves and thinking that our writing is feeling a little stiff or stodgy.  So what’s the best way to fix that?  Dig out the ole thesaurus and swap out some tired words for fancy new ones of course!

This is where things go terribly wrong.

  • Hide becomes ensconced.
  • Grudge becomes rancor.
  • Kill becomes extirpate.
  • Alone becomes onliest.

See what I mean? 

Sometimes saying things plain as day is the best way to do it.  I’m all for throwing in a bit of intrigue or impact with a well-placed curse word, or a word that fits into your story because it’s exactly what your character would say.

But if you have to reach for it, then you’ve probably gone too far.  And when you've gone too far the reader can tell- the whole experiment falls flat, and you come across as disingenuous.

Big words don’t make you smarter.  But how you choose to use them definitely does.

(photo credit sjockell)


Reader Comments (2)

This is a great post, and funny! I think about this a lot because, almost without fail, I fall on one side or another with word choice. I tend to (over)think everything I write, especially blog, so sometimes I challenge myself to just hit the enter button and try not to care! (however, since I'm new to your site, it took me FOREVER to write this comment :)

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

Hi Julia! I agonize over my word choice if I let myself, so I really have to watch that. A blog post that should take an hour turns into several hours just because I re-read it a million times to tweak words/phrases here or there. I'm definitely working on the happy medium. I'm so glad you decided to comment and enjoyed the post. I'm looking forward to chatting with you again!

April 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterChristy Smith

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