About Writing

A Primer on Vocabulary

Writers tend to be in love with words. How can we not be? Words are our medium, the heart of our art. Personally, I have loved words my entire life, their beauty, their power, and this love only grew when I learned the way that I could wield words had an effect.

In school, many of us had vocabulary lists and quizzes each week. A lot of students store and dump, which is fair. After all, it’s a grade. The issue stemmed from the fact that not a lot of pedagogical research had been done on vocabulary acquisition. Memorization–and the inevitable “use in a sentence” was truly all that teachers had at their fingertips (depending upon how old you are, I guess.) Even as English departments shifted to a Writer’s Workshop model, vocabulary got short shrift, which is akin to telling art students that understanding color theory isn’t important. After all, writer’s shade a sentence by a single word choice. 6+ Traits had a vocabulary component, but even that was small.

And it’s no surprise, really. Our understanding of a word lies on a continuum from “I’ve never seen this word before” to “I’ve seen it, but I don’t know what it means” to “I know what it means, I think, but can’t use it in a sentence” to “I can use it in a sentence, but only one way” to finally, “I can use this word multiple ways.” Research shows it takes 40 interactions with a word before we reach that final stage. (It’s ironic that this is about the same number of times a reader needs to see your name before they buy your book).

As I watched students struggle with vocabulary, I knew I had to deep dive into the research, which was and still is limited, but there is some…and writers really should be familiar with the basics.Words are made up of three separate parts…all of which need to be understood in order to use words effectively.

The first is easy: denotation. That’s the definition of the word. The thing we had to memorize. I would caution you to double check definitions of words you don’t regularly use. I–justifiably–got rebuked for a not on point use of the word “nubile.”

The second is connotation. That’s the “baggage” that words have. These are landmines for writers because connotation shifts regularly, so we can think we’re using a word that has a positive connotation that is now negative. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one stop shop for checking connotation. I would just advise you to double check a definition thoroughly…like the OED, if you have access.

You probably knew those two. it’s the 3rd one that can also trip you up if you aren’t careful: collocation. Collocation is the way that a word is typically used. I think of this as “F7 Syndrome.” If you’ve forgotten, F7 is the thesaurus button. I could generally tell when a student randomly used the thesaurus, because the word may be technically correct, but that’s just not how the word is used.

Here’s an example: verdant means (definition 1) “green in color.” A writer can correctly use verdant thus:

His eyes were verdant.

The problem is: we typically don’t use the word this way. It’s generally used to describe plants, grass, lawns, etc. Now perhaps that twist is what you are going for. Perhaps you’re describing a Wood Elf. That’s a cool use of the word. Or maybe you’re a poet and choosing to challenge the way people think.

Here’s the point: It’s one thing to CHOOSE to manipulate collocation. It’s another to fall into the trap of misuse and look less than knowledgable.

So how do you know a word’s collocation? You read. A lot. Look up words you aren’t sure of (The “I’m pretty sure I know what it means” phase.)

And that’s a good thing because most writers don’t need a push to read. It tends to feel like we’re cheating because we aren’t writing, when in fact, we’re honing our craft.

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