Bubble Vocabulary and the Working Vocabulary

I read this blog post and loved the concept of a bubble vocabulary: the words we almost know, sometimes use but are secretly unsure of. The post talks about how the author has run into the social discomfort of misusing a word that he only sort of knows on the fly in conversation. I don’t know how many people have poked fun at me because I’ve used a word wrong. Some of those incidents have scarred me for life. I admire him for being willing to bring it up and start healing some of our collective shame over these well intentioned mishaps. He points out that it’s a good thing to expand our spoken vocabulary and use more exact words and it serves no good purpose for people to humiliate those who are brave enough to step outside of the comfortable word zone.

Reading his post reminded me that I’d really like to expand my bubble. When I am writing I often know there are better, more exact words that I could use for what I’m saying but I can’t think of them. Often when this happens I settle for a close enough word. This leads to me spending several minutes while editing trying to figure out what word I meant when I wrote the idea down the first time. I flip through a thesaurus or dictionary only to give up and rewrite the whole sentence using a word that I have just discovered that will work but not in the way that I originally wrote the sentence. I would really like to be able to pull out and use more of the words that I know when I need them. I think it would make my writing a lot better and easier.

I did some research online.  A vocabulary gap is normal. People generally recognize a lot more words than they actually use. In fact there is a name for the part we use: “working vocabulary”. Unfortunately when I looked it up on the web there were no suggestions for expanding our working vocabulary. All the hints were about expanding the vocabulary as a whole, basically adding new words. Which didn’t help me. What I want is to be able to use more of the words I already know. So I made up a game that I can play with myself whenever I’m waiting and have nothing else to do. Basically I chose a boring word such as “couch”, and define it. In this instance I am thinking of couch as the thing you sit on. Then I try and come up with as many synonyms as I can. After I’ve done that I try and think of other meanings to the word. In the example of ‘couch’ you can couch things in language.

I don’t know if my game actually expands my working vocabulary but it is rather fun.

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Shrinking Vocabularies?

I’ve read the claim that the size of Americans vocabulary has shrunk over the years. Its been pointed out that the works of Shakespeare prove that the average Joe of today uses a lot fewer words than the average Joe of Shakespeare’s time. I have since read many articles disputing this. Its true that a lot of words that Shakespeare used back in his day are not understood by modern people. Still dissenters say that there are lots of new words in our vocabularies describing things that didn’t exist back in Shakespeare’s time so this makes up for the loss.

The thing is, apparently modern textbook publishers and even newspaper and magazine publishers have reduced the number of words that they choose to use. In fact, they often dumb down material to the lowest common denominator deliberately. It started because there was a realization in the 1900’s that many people don’t use a lot of words in their everyday lives.

Science has shown more recently that humans have, essentially, two vocabularies. The one that they recognize and the one that they use. The vocabulary they use is often a lot smaller than the vocabulary they know or can recognize. It’s not a bad thing: it’s just easier to use a ‘good enough’ word than to try to dig at the back of the brain for a more precise one most of the time. Most of the time it’s not important to use the ‘perfect’ word. Still just because a person doesn’t use a word does not make it impossible or unimportant for them to be able to recognize it or know it. So this dumbing down of media has perhaps had some unintended consequences. Children are growing up not exposed to complex words and often don’t know what those words mean. It is often pointed to as a reason that our modern person has a smaller vocabulary. I can’t say for certain that it is true but I think that it had definitely led to people being uncomfortable with words that they don’t recognize. People often look at me as if I have two heads when I use a word that they don’t know the meaning of.

As a writer I wonder if this reduction of words will be a deciding factor in if an article I submit will be chosen or not. And if publishers are rejecting books or articles that I would enjoy because the author chose too many ‘complicated’ words. I would hope not but I do notice in the self published novels I read on my kindle that there are often words I don’t recognize. I always find this exciting and often look the words up, as it is so easy to do on the electronic reader. I have not noticed the same number of unknown words in traditionally published works but that is simply a personal observation and might be totally biased.

To take away the option to encounter words seems wrong to me. We need words to help us acknowledge our feelings and understand our world, because without them our feelings can overwhelm us and we can’t think things through properly. As far as I can tell, as long as we keep enough words available to describe our interior and exterior life, we will be okay. Removing words from our commons because they are ‘too complex’ is like saying “math is hard for kids so we shouldn’t teach it.” It’s an awful lot like censorship.

Still its hard to prove that our vocabularies have shrunk, or that the reduction of words in mass media has had a harmful effect. It might be something to keep an eye on however.

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Coming Up With Writing Ideas

This guest post was written by Steven A. Taylor.

I decided to wait until Monday to write this, to really put my money where my mouth is.  See, for me, Garfield, and probably a few others, Mondays are the worst.  I’ve usually just finished a weekend doing the things I love to do – sleeping in, spending time with family & friends, going out, staying in, watching movies, catching up on some reading – and now I’m back to the grind, as they say.  Doing the things I don’t necessarily love to do, but the things I have to do, and paying the price accordingly.  Getting back on my weekday sleep schedule, returning to the gym, resuming a semi-healthy eating pattern, and all the other stuff I tend to toss by the wayside when the world is my oyster.

By the end of the week, I’m usually at my sharpest, mentally.  But, on Mondays, I have tough time … figuring out … the words.

It isn’t necessarily limited to a particular day of the week, but as a writer, I’ll go through periods of tremendous activity, followed by extended periods of inertia, where I not only lack in a motivating force, but I don’t even try.  When it finally dawns on me that I haven’t written anything creatively for a while, I scold myself and then set out to try to rectify the oversight.  These are some of the tricks I use when attempting to break out of my writing slumps.

For starters, I like to block out a lot of time (a few hours, at least).  It takes some of the pressure away if, for instance, you only have 60 minutes free before you have to move on to something else.  Or, even worse, if you really start getting somewhere positive towards the end of those 60 minutes, and then you either have to break off from what you’re doing, or continue your progress while neglecting your other obligations.

It also helps to get your brain working.  Caffeine is a way I like to cheat, as I find I’m much more alert and have many more neurons firing if I consume a large jug of coffee or iced tea first.  But, there are other ways to get your brain going.  I find doing something really monotonous and pointless – making iTunes playlists, coming up with various Top 10/20/50 lists, or just ripping through an easy Sudoku or crossword puzzle or something – will find me engaged and get me thinking about other things, so that when I’m done, I should be ready to start thinking about writing again.

If I’m looking to write something brand new – like a short story – I’ll just start writing about the first thing that comes to mind.  It can be anything!  One time, I wrote a 2-page rant on how much I dislike Reality TV, and it eventually morphed into one of my favorite stories.  Just start writing about any topic, and see if it takes you somewhere else.  You might end up scrapping 95% of what you write, but maybe you’ll stumble on a kernel of an idea that you can reuse in something you like better.

If I’m looking to continue a longer piece – like a novel or a play – and I’m trying to determine what should happen next, often I’ll go for a long walk.  I know I’m not suggesting anything that hasn’t already been recommended by writers since the beginning of time, but it really does help to get out there and go someplace new.  I’m also the type of person who likes to talk things out to myself.  I’m sure I look like a crazy person when I’m walking through a park talking to myself about characters and plot and whatnot, but for me, talking it out seems to help.  I suppose, if you have someone you’re close with (ideally, someone who is also a writer), you could talk it out with them as well.

For what it’s worth, going out for a walk can be really helpful when trying to write something new as well.  Not only can you clear your head, but if you remain open to what’s around you, the outside world can be an endless funhouse of people and things – both great and terrible – that could be the inspiration of your next piece.

If all else fails, there are always some fun writing exercises to try.  Your output on these doesn’t necessarily have to be amazing, but sometimes just the act of writing anything can jumpstart you towards writing something you really love.  Some examples include:

— Take a story (preferably one that’s open-ended, or ends ambiguously), either from print, TV, or movies, and imagine what would happen next.  You could start from the instant the other piece ends, or you could skip ahead 50 years, it’s up to you.  Just write the first thing that comes to mind.

— Think of a person in your life, then put them in a situation they would never in a million years be in, and write about what happens.  Feel free to take as many liberties as you’d like in how they would react.

— Find an interesting blurb or headline in the news, then write the “behind the scenes” story as if you know exactly what happened.

— What would you do if you knew today was your last day on Earth?  This could be anything from a bucket list, to an inner monologue, to a fantasy of how you’d spend your final hours.

— Imagine you’re the secret offspring of someone really famous.  Who would it be?  What would you say to them?  What would your life be like going forward?

Those are just a few ideas; you can find countless more writing prompts online.  The thing I find is, when I get myself in the mood, writing begets more writing.  Even if I’m not writing creatively, I try to write something on most days, even if it’s just writing out what I did that day, or my plans for the weekend, or a blog post about sports or pop culture or current events or whatever else might interest me.  Getting and keeping the juices flowing in any capacity should make it that much easier in those times where you’re sitting down to a blank screen, trying to will yourself to create that next masterpiece.

This guest post was written by Steven A. Taylor.

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