Presents and Vocabulary

Yay, birthday presents! There appears to be a theme. My mother bought me this gorgeous teacup and saucer with little cherry blossoms all over it, and then this morning there was a package from sitting on our doorstep:

Sailor Boy: Hmmm, let me guess. Another teacup?

(We’re seriously going to need to get some sort of cabinet/display case for all of them.)

But it was actually my first shipment in the tea-of-the-month club that my brother got me for my birthday. Yay! Now I have something to put in my collection of tea cups!

Also, this is not a birthday present (I got it for Christmas) but my dad got me this beautiful crystal killer unicorn that I keep on my desk now when I write. It really is a killer unicorn, even if the artist didn’t think of that while designing it. Seriously, though, the eyes glow red. I find it quite inspiring.

A cup of tea, a killer unicorn, and Pan. That’s all I need in my office. (Puppy sleeping on my feet is a bonus.)

In other news, I’ve been rolling my eyes a bit at a discussion on one of my lists about vocabulary in YA novels. The prevailing opinion goes that one should not use “unusual” or “big” words in YA books, because teens don’t know them.

Gigawhat now? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a safe bet that my vocabulary was actually better when I was a teen than it is now. To start with, I was learning vocabulary words for school every week. And then there were SAT flashcards. And if that weren’t enough, I was in Latin class five days a week and my etymological skills were at peak performance. In addition, I was spending five days a week reading Shakespeare and Chaucer and lots of other writers who used plenty of words I didn’t know. I had a ton of practice figuring stuff out from context and, you know, looking stuff up.

And you know what else? That’s not even the point.

Please, please, please, please aspiring YA authors: do not dumb your books down because you think teens can’t handle it. They can handle it. They are handling Faulkner and Hemingway in their English classes. They can handle anything you want to throw at them. And they know when you are treating them like idiots. And they do not like it. I see a lot of complaints online from teen readers who resent authors who think they all sound like valley girls circa 1985: “Oh totally, like wow, gag me with a spoon!”


I recently read the Lemony Snicket books, in which there is a running gag about Snicket using big (or often, not so big) words and then defining them, humorously, for the reader. There is also a running gag wherein the adult characters explain words to the Baudelaires — words that they, without exception, already know. I can’t help but think this is a commentary on exactly this sort of behavior. Children (even the young readers of the Snicket books) know a lot more words than you give them credit for, and if you hide these words from them, they won’t learn.

This is not to say that you should cram every twenty-five-cent word you can think of into your book, but if a word is right, do not be afraid of it, and certainly do not go combing through your manuscript looking for words you think are “too big” for the dim intelligence of your readership. That way lies condescension.

The Secret Society Girl books are probably more likely to contain “big words” because the characters are more likely to use them, especially in dialogue, and most especially when debating each other. Take, for example, this exchange between Poe and Amy in the first book:

“Ah, Miss Haskell,” Poe said, snapping his book shut. “Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?”

“Exquisite. I’m looking for a straight answer on what’s going on here.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You sound like a member of the fourth estate. Interesting. And here I thought Carey was prevaricating.”

Dude, the SATs were four years ago. Get a life.

So here I’m using the formalized debate-speak for laughs. But the fact of the matter is that it would be counter to their characters to dumb down their vocabulary, as I’m writing about smart kids at a top school.

In Rampant, while the characters are also intelligent, they aren’t all as academically-minded as Amy and her friends, and Astrid’s interests, particularly, lay more in the area of science than literature. Most of her “big words” come from medical books — anaphylactic, tachycardia, etc. There are also characters whose first language isn’t English, so their vocabulary is even more limited:

“Signorina,” Lino said wearily, “This is to be talked about with Signores Bartoli and Jaeger, yes? I do not choose.”

“No, no, Lino,” Phil said. “I understand that. But we’re here now. With you. So you could say that we are currently under your direction. Neil doesn’t have the same knowledge of animal husbandry as you do. And Mr. Jaeger has his own…agenda.”

“Signorina, if there is anything I learn after these weeks it is I do not know many things about licornos.”

I also got to use some bad Italian, which was fun, and which I’m half expecting to be criticized for, but again, I made that choice due to character. There are several different ways to say “I love you” in Italian, and it matters who you are talking to — a family member, a romantic interest, etc. However, I have an American character with an Italian mother, and what he’s heard his whole life, what has emotional resonance to him, is the “family” way. So that’s what he uses. I went back and forth on this one for a really long time, and there are a bunch of reasons I chose it in the end, which are kind of spoilers, so…

What I’m trying to say is that vocabulary should be a facet of character, not of audience. If you are writing one of those “simple vocabulary” books with specific requirements — well, that’s different. That’s a very particular market, similar to the “use this vocab word in a sentence” assignments we had in high school. But for the regular trade market, it’s the story that should define the words, not the author’s (probably off-base) opinion of the reader’s comprehension. (Some of the words I’ve been hearing that “teens don’t know” are just — ugh. I’m offended, and I haven’t been a teen in eleven years!) I have never been told to take a particular vocabulary word out of my books.

And I leave you with the immortal advice of Mark Twain, who may have written books about children, but they weren’t necessarily “childrens’ books”:

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Use the right word, whether it’s the big one or the small one. Use the right one.

Posted in diversions, rants, Uncategorized, words, writing advice

9 Responses to Presents and Vocabulary

  1. Bill Clark says:

    vocabulary should be a facet of character

    I absolutely agree. I learned this intuitively when I was writing my first novel last summer. Each of the characters had his/her own individual mode of speaking and self-expression. I’ve now written three more books in the series, and as new characters have appeared, they, too, have come with their own distinct voices.

    The voices vary from colloquial to educated to baroquely mannered. Their tone can vary from matter-of-fact to humorous to ironic detachment. Somehow, each of the characters was “born” with an individualistic mode of expression, with a vocabulary to match.

    The third book in the series is written from a YA standpoint, but there is no “dumbing down” as a result. Just as in real life, the characters maintain their own linguistic integrity, and whether you’re fifteen or fifty, you learn to deal with it.

  2. Tiff says:

    Great post, Diana. I totally agree–and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look up a few words in the SSG series. When I was a teen, I thrived on learning new words, and I think my ability to add them to my vocabulary was better then than it is now. Write what is RIGHT and let the reader do the rest. If he/she (the reader) is committed to the book, he/she will make the effort to figure out what the word means.

  3. Phyllis Towzey says:

    Really excellent post, Diana. My kids are 13 and 16 – they aren’t going to buy books that insult their intelligence.

  4. Lesley says:

    Great post, Diana. As a middle school/high school English teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more in regards to the vocabulary, as well as sentence structure, used in YA novels. Teens are intelligent, and you’re right, they spend more time on vocabulary and writing than the average adult does, and they are also reading texts that are more difficult. In fact, they read more classics, which are generally regarding as difficult by many, then most adults do on a regular basis.

    I think it’s just a misconception among some people that kids/teens aren’t as smart as they really are. The reality is that many kids today know much more than we give them credit for, and when you recognize that, they respect you more for not talking down to them. It was, and always will be, my goal to make my kids rise to the challenge. Aside from that, I think back to when I was a kid reading voraciously, and half the time I had no idea what many of the words meant simply because I was reading books that thematically, had a much higher reading level than I was mature enough to understand. Still, I could get the point, make connections, etc., and kids, as well as adults still do this today.

    A good example would be Michael Chabon’s writing, which my friend swears is full of a bunch of words he made up. 🙂 Still, despite that fact, she still gets and enjoys the story and has learned something along the way while reading fiction. What is better than that?

    Anyway, great, great post. John Green has a post on his blog that discusses this idea as well.

  5. Meggs says:

    I know what you mean about words. Some YA books I use to read would have really good ideas, but it would all be ruined by the author making all the characters sound like 8 year-olds. The worst thing an author can do is give their charasters no personality.

  6. Robin says:

    Thank you, Diana! I’m writing my first YA (just about to type the end actually, thanks to Sven) and vocabulary is something I’ve struggled with a bit. But your mention that vocabulary should be a facet of character is exactly what I’d decided to do. My heroine is smart, she’s articulate, and I want her to come off that way. Thanks for making me feel good about my decision to leave those “bigger” words in.

  7. JulieLeto says:

    Tiff, I’m not ashamed to admit that I look up words in Diana’s books…and I have a degree in English (and was five classes short of a graduate degree when I quit to TEACH high school English.)

    I have a great vocabulary, I think, as a result of my background and I would never dumb down a book for teen readers. I taught teenagers. I know better!

  8. Diana says:

    I look up words for my books, too. It’s like research. In Rampant, my characters are much more versed in archery than I am. In SSG, they are much more versed in English Lit.

  9. lenore says:

    My vocab was amazing as a teen. Then I went on a foreign exchange and didn’t speak English for a year. My vocab is still impressive, but you are right, it was probably even better when I was a teen.