Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fancy Words

Recently, the New York Times After Deadline blog posted about the 50 words that most stump Times readers.

There are some words on there I know and enjoy—I love inchoate, sanguine, and feckless. There are some I would most definitely mispronounce if asked to say them aloud—those foreign terms don't always glide off the tongue. There are a few I'm surprised made the list—hubris, overhaul, laconic. And there are more than a few I've had to look up time and again.

Many of the words are the sort that may be difficult to define when taken out of context. But when they're positioned in a sentence in an article with a specific focus and even tone, I find the information around those tricky words give enough clues for me to muddle through the meaning or at least understand the point the writer is trying to make.

The beauty of reading the Times on the Internet, however, is that I don't have to muddle through. All I have to do is double-click on the word in question and voila! I have a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary.

In the blog post, the question is raised as to whether such words should be used if readers don't understand them or know what they mean.

As Philip B. Corbett writes in the blog post:

But even the most studious readers are likely to stumble over at least some of these words. I don’t suggest banning any of them — in some cases they may be the perfect choice, and we refuse to talk down to readers or dumb down our prose.

Still, we should remember that this is journalism, not philology. Our readers, smart as they are, are often in a hurry. They may be standing on the subway or skimming a story over breakfast. Let’s not make them work any harder than necessary.

It's a good point to remember whether you're writing a news brief or a magazine feature. Beautiful language can enhance any article. But used thoughtlessly or excessively, it does little more than hinder readers and mask the information your article seeks to provide.

Not sure about using a certain word or phrase? If all else fails, remember Strunk & White's timeless advice:

"Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able."