Musicians have notes; artists, colors and shapes; writers have words. Writers in English have lots of words. While it’s impossible to count the number of words in our language, linguists estimate that English contains about a million different words, two million if you add all the scientific names for things. And new words enter the language all the time; just consider “Localvore,” a noun, and “tweet,” a verb, both recent additions to a language that continually grows and shifts.
Despite this wealth, the average sixteen year old is estimated to depend on a vocabulary of ten- to twelve-thousand words; a college graduate twenty- to twenty-five thousand – a mere pittance considering the wealth of the language. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Shakespeare used 884,647 different words, made up of 29,066 distinct forms, including proper names.
What all of this means for a writer is that we have lots of raw material to work with, and if we want to express ourselves to be clearly understood, we need to learn these words and to use them. But it’s a big job, so here are some ways to build, strengthen and tone your language.
Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as well as your verbs. Verbs attract attention. Some say verbs flirt with your readers; others might argue that they do something else with your readers’ mind, another verb that begins with an f. Truth be told, verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. If you could watch a Positron Emission Tomography (a/k/a a PET scan) of the brain of someone reading your stories, it’s the verbs that would ignite the fireworks of brain activity that show up. Those green and red splotches exploding into Technicolor mark your reader’s neurotransmitters firing, ramping up her heartbeat, increasing her rate of respiration, maybe generating a little dampness in her armpits and groin. If you’re writing erotica, perhaps a little throb. Whatever it is you are writing, it’s your verbs that capture your reader’s attention.
Diction. If it’s verbs that capture attention, it’s your language, generally, that keeps it. Everyone knows the old saw, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In this day and age of the 140-character tweet, a thousand words are way too many. Try ten.
Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say “car” when you mean “rust-bucket”. There’s a world of difference between “Pops” and “Daddy”. Do you mean “sensuous” or “sinewy”? Every word is an opportunity: use it.
The best way to enlarge your vocabulary is to read – widely. Don’t read just poetry or fiction. Read science, travel, philosophy and car repair manuals. Read contemporary work and read poems, plays, novels, histories and letters from long ago. Look up words you don’t know. Enlarging your vocabulary can also be fun and games: Scrabble, Lexulous. Free Rice. Crossword puzzles. Drive your friends and family mad with puns. Play Mad-Libs. Subscribe to A Word A Day.
Just as regular work-outs at the gym increase strength and stamina, a little regular attention to diction will help you build your vocabulary muscles, tone your sentences, and make you a writer of leaner, stronger, prose.
Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of Into The Wilderness, a love story between sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.