“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I see a disturbing trend rising in the new world of publishing. I see lots of writers who could use a vocabulary boost. This manifests itself in a couple of ways: either writers stick with the same safe, familiar words over and over again, or they use words without full knowledge of what they mean. Paging Inigo Montoya.
The good news is that both symptoms are curable with just a bit of effort. The easiest way to build vocabulary is to read; we’ve all heard that advice before. I’ve also heard people complain that they don’t have time to read. A lot of those people eventually ask me about that week’s episode of a television show. Yeah. I caught you. If you had time to watch that, you had time to read.
Don’t read just anything, though. If the idea here is to build vocabulary by exposing ourselves to new words, then we have to go where the new words are. Right? Try a new author. Dip into a new subject. Explore unfamiliar genres. Go expand your horizons.
The audiobook, beautiful as it is, probably won’t get you any closer to meeting your vocabulary goal. For one thing, the audiobook won’t spell that new word for you. This is one of my favorite things – I love sounding out those words that are so horribly misspelled that I can’t identify them otherwise – but remember, I charge by the hour.
Keep a dictionary around while you’re reading. I don’t recommend rushing right to it, though. Many moons ago, when I studied Latin, I read with my dictionary just out of reach. When I ran across an unfamiliar word, I found that I’d rather use context to make an educated guess as to what it meant. (That way, I didn’t have to sit up and reach for my dictionary.) Later, when I was finalizing my translations, I’d double-check my reading with a dictionary. That’s how I’m using my English dictionary now. Stopping for each unfamiliar word breaks up my reading experience too much. If I can use context as a stopgap measure, I do that until I can take a dictionary break, but I do take a dictionary break if I have to.
I know it sounds like school. I even invoked school a minute ago. But this whole glamorous writer’s life is work. If it feels joyful, it’s because the work is about as cool as it gets, but it is work.
You can still have fun, though. Go check out www.freerice.com. It’s a vocabulary game. Each time you get an answer right, you donate rice to people in need. Level 1 is no great challenge … but there are 60 levels.
Go forth and enjoy! Maybe soon, you’ll invoke Inigo Montoya. That’s going to feel pretty good.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.