Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net.

tennis ball over the net

Context, over the net. What next?

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use short words. So its no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

by E. B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985)
from The Art of the Essay No. 1
in The Paris Review, Issue 48, Fall 1969
image – nimish_gogri

A Context that Absorbs their Attention

Notice the bridge. Tucked in between a sentence about “hard words,” and another about “short words” is an encouragement to challenge readers: “They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention.” Context is the glue.

What happens when context is left out of the picture?

A few years ago a study of Stanford University students showed that using big words to look smarter can backfire. The study (I get a laugh out of this) is titled Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

The study’s summary tells us there is “a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants’ prior expectations of essay quality.” In other words, readers thought the simpler language was written by smarter writers.

Readers were shown three versions of the same text. I think the simplest versions are better written. In the most complex versions “every applicable word” is lengthened. The effect is like thesaurus soup. The sentence “I want to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to know literature well” becomes “I desire to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to recognize literature satisfactorily.”

The simple version’s writer wants to “know literature well.” Apparently, the writer who uses more complex words cannot yet “recognize literature satisfactorily.” A fifth grader should be able to “recognize literature.” Couple that with using other big words in a klutzy way, and I’d wonder if writer number two is faking English fluency.

Sigh.

Do you see? The complexity was changed without consideration for the context. When the words made less sense, the writer seemed less intelligent.

As someone who is just a smidge obsessed with etymology, I must confess to a smug satisfaction that “hard words” weren’t why the complex version bombed for me. Context puts ideas in a reader’s head, so it’s good to be clear about the intended message.

“How’s this?” he asked, showing the ad to Charlotte. “It says ‘Crunchy.’ ‘Crunchy’ would be a good word to write in your web.”

“Just the wrong idea,” replied Charlotte. “Couldn’t be worse. We don’t want Zuckerman to think Wilbur is crunchy. He might start thinking about crisp, crunchy bacon and tasty ham. That would put ideas into his head. We must advertise Wilbur’s noble qualities, not his tastiness. Go get another word, please, Templeton!”
by E. B. White
from Charlotte’s Web

________________________

For more about The Paris Review, check out this Faulkner quote: “Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” It’s from his 1956 interview.

In case you’re curious, there was a Paris Review interview named The Art of the Essay No. 2, but it did not appear until the Summer of 1997, 30 years after the No. 1 I quoted above.

Thought for the day: Vocabulary is Sexy.

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