One million words…in theory

A few years back, the English language spawned its one millionth word.

Since words are the tools of a writer’s trade, one might assume the ever-expanding nature of vocabulary would result in greater creativity for the wordsmith.  Sadly, this is not the case.

Late last century, Dr. Edward B. Fry developed an extensive list of the most common words used when teaching reading, writing and spelling.  His list—called The Fry Instant Words—has been a boon to understanding fluency and reading comprehension.  While helpful for educators, Fry’s findings can be a little depressing for anyone who yearns for verbal variety.  Consider the following:

  • 25 words make up approximately one-third of all items published.
  • 100 words comprise approximately one-half of all of the words found in publications.
  • 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material.

Now it’s possible that this phenomenon has everything to do with natural linguistic evolution.  Natural selection inevitably takes a toll.  For example, if a tool, animal, or article of clothing no longer exists, there isn’t much of a need to keep the word for it around.  Because English borrows words form a multitude of other languages, redundancy, too, might results in one option going out of style, even as another rises to prominence.  One could argue that we don’t need so many synonyms.

One could also argue that shedding a few superfluous words here and there makes a language more streamlined and effective and that the stats above don’t necessarily imply a “dumbing down” of the written word in modern times.

I disagree.

According to “The Hot Word,” (a dictionary.com blog), scientists have discovered that in the past 40 years, more words have died than during any other period going back to 1800.  Meanwhile, fewer new words are being introduced into our lexicon.  Ironic, isn’t it, that our advent into the Information Age is underscored by a mass extinction of the building blocks of knowledge?

The aforementioned article suggests the invention of spell-check software shoulders some of the blame.  But, really, we humans are lazy creatures.  Why learn eight different words that mean the same thing if we can get away with knowing only one or two of them?  Why tap into the full one million words if less than a thousand (seemingly) suffice?

Writers know it’s not as black and white as that.  There are subtle nuances among word choices.  Implied and inferred tones.  Also, who wants to use the same noun three sentences in a row?  And, damn it, sometimes a word feels right.

Take the word “prolix.”  A wonderful word, all things considered.  But I’m secretly scared to use it because I don’t know if the majority of today’s readers know what it means.  So I usually default to “verbose.”  And, depending on my medium and audience, I might forgo that word too, swapping in a more commonplace substitute such as “effusive” or “long-winded” or “wordy.”

But why should I dumb it down?

Simply put, communication requires comprehension.  If I use words few people are familiar with, I risk fracturing—perhaps irrevocably—the link between writer and reader.  When I was a journalist, the rule of thumb (or is it “rule of dumb”?) was that where word choice was concerned, we shouldn’t aim higher than a sixth-grade reading level.

Sixth.

Grade.

I posit that we speakers and readers of English are more lazy than ignorant.  Back in the day, if a person encountered an unfamiliar word, he or she would have had to seek out a dictionary (likely propping up a problematic windowsill or buried in the back of the closet next to Scrabble) and possibly injure his or her back while lugging the cumbersome tome back to one’s preferred reading nook.  A chore to be sure!

But today, we have a dozen or more free dictionaries that can be accessed from any Internet-connected device, including laptops, e-readers, and that most personal of personal computers: the never-far-from-your-pocket smartphone.

Writers who think they are helping the reader bypass perfectly useful words in favor of most popular counterparts are mistaken.  If writing—any type of writing—is meant to inform and in some way educate a reader, then we are doing more harm than good by omitting challenging words.

Perhaps the more troublesome truth isn’t that dumbing down our words makes reading newspaper articles, blogs, and novels easier, but rather it makes writing them easier.  It’s as much a paradox as a perpetuating cycle.  The lazier writers allow readers to be, the lazier we, too, become.  A lose-lose situation for both parties, and the greatest casualty is not some collection of words, but the fundamentals of expanding human knowledge.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s not as dark and dismal as I make it seem.  After all, an artist can paint a fantastic piece with far fewer than 1,000,000 colors.  So why would a writer need a full million words?  He doesn’t.  Not really.  But more than a few hundred would be nice.

(By the way, if you thought my reference to “one million words” in the headline suggested this post would reveal why I chose that name for my blog, then you’ve gotten a taste of different literary trick: the red herring.  Maybe next time!)

—Editor’s note: the real reason I went with “One Million Words” can be found here.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “One million words…in theory

  1. John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African born novelist. He has been described as “inarguably the most celebrated and decorated” living writer in the Anglosphere.” He’s a recipient of the CNA Prize (thrice), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Booker Prize (twice) and the 2003 Nobel prize for literature.

    I was living in South Africa at the time he received the Nobel prize and, amid all the publicity, his novel “Disgrace” was being reviewed on a local radio station. Wanting to read it, I phoned my local library so as to get my name on what I felt sure would be a long waiting list. Imagine my surprise when the librarian told that I could come by and pick up a copy anytime, adding that that “nobody reads J.M. Coetzee’s books.”

    In contrast, there was usually a waiting list for James Patterson’s books.

    I suppose if you’re content to write for a small, selective readership, that’s fine. But if you want your books to fly off the shelves, you’d probably be better off sticking to simple words, short sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

    • I don’t disagree. But it is a self-fulfilling prophecy nonetheless.

      And I believe it goes beyond the reading/writing dynamic. Computers (and other modern conventions) have altered the very way we process information—the way we think. Breadth, not depth, of knowledge is the name of the game. Much of the time, we skim and sample rather than ingest and savor.

      However, an author’s approach likely depends on the his or her intent, the vehicle of his or her “verbal deliveries,” and his or her intended audience. Because you’re absolutely correct: Those who wish to employ the English language as a vast palette of colors will likely limit themselves to a niche readership.

      Those who write for readers beyond a sixth grade reading level probably won’t sell as many books as Mr. Patterson or Mr. Brown or Ms. Rowling, but those people who value a deftly written story will find value, and I have to believe they appreciate the brave (if universally unappreciated) authors who step off the all-too-beaten path.

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