Decades ago, one of my most cherished exercises as a grammar school tot was the vocabulary quiz. Kindergarteners were exempt, but when we reached first grade we were expected to learn twenty new words each week – their spelling, correct pronunciation and proper use in a sentence.
As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable. Every word was a little key that unlocked another part of the world, a window that opened onto new and intriguing vistas. Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling off the tongue like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed as though they could go on forever. Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind. Perspicacity. Archetype. Lacuna. Paraphernalia. Abnegate. Chrysanthemums.
The learning process never varied. My flashcards were white cardboard rectangles with words printed in red on one side and definitions printed in black on the other. Each evening after supper, we’d linger at the table and flip through the cards. Mom would give me a definition, and I’d tell her the word. Then, we’d reverse the process. Dad would give me a word; I’d attempt to spell it and give the definition.
Sometimes we made vocabulary drill even more of a game by using each word in the funniest sentence possible. Now and then, if we were feeling creative, we’d punish each other with terrible plays on words. Sometimes, I’d help myself remember a spelling by using a sentence as a clue. It took weeks to learn how to spell chrysanthemum. Finally, I thought of my friend Chris and used her name to help me spell the name of the flower: “Chrys an the Mums went to town for lunch…”
Because our new words had to be used, teachers nudged us toward writing, and we learned to diagram sentences. We started on the most basic level, identifying and properly placing subject, predicate, articles and prepositions. Gradually, independent and dependent clauses appeared, and little stems, platforms and long lines reached out to the edge of meaning.
“The dog chased the cat” was where we started, but it wasn’t long before we were dissecting “The brown, mischievous dog chased the cat around the house until he caught her behind the blackberry bushes”.
Eventually, “The brown mischievous dog, in a frenzy of doggie attitude, decided to chase the cat but gave up the effort after his frustrated and irritated owner came after him with a broom and threats of banishment.”
And we diagrammed it all. By the time we were done, the blackboard was covered with lines, slashes, dashes and arrows and a breathless class collapsed into giggles as the unfortunate grammarian finished and stepped back, awaiting the teacher’s verdict.
Behind the exercises, there was a pair of assumptions about language: that a bigger vocabulary is better, and that sentences which have a clear, firm structure can be loaded down with exquisite, shimmering words until they bow like picnic tables covered with hams, salads and cakes.
Those days of learning to love piled-high buffets of words and sentences came to mind recently when a friend mentioned he’d been attending class to learn how to write shorter sentences. I suspect he was partly joking, or giving us only part of the story, but his remark led me to think about assorted bits of advice I’ve received since starting to write:
Short sentences are good, and shorter sentences are better.
Don’t overwhelm your reader with complexity.
Don’t use words that require a dictionary.
Remember that readers have short attention spans.
Write so a sixth grader can understand what you have to say.
Limit yourself to one or two syllable words whenever possible.
Don’t bloat your writing with adjectives and adverbs.
Never go over 300 words.
When these little bits are gathered up into one place and committed to the page, they appear to suggest one further bit of advice: remember you are writing for dunces.
If the same logic were applied to other fields, the absurdity would be obvious. Tell a painter to limit herself to primary colors and brush strokes no longer than one inch in length, and it’s a turpentine bath for you. Tell a Master Gardener none of his plants can exceed six inches in height, or that he only can use perennials and you’ll be tossed onto the compost heap. Suggest to a chef she restrict herself to recipes using five ingredients or fewer, or that no dish should take longer than ten minutes to prepare, and you’ll be eating frozen dinners – alone.
You still might have a picture to hang on the wall, a bit of color for your patio and dinner on the table, but the look and taste of life would be diminished immeasurably.
This isn’t meant to be an argument for incomprehensible paragraphs, the misuse of words or pretentious grammatical constructions. I happen to be one of those throwbacks who believe spelling counts, complete sentences are good, and clarity makes writing more enjoyable for the reader.
On the other hand, while little words and short sentences have their legitimate role to play in everything from daily journalism to great literature, there is no reason that less-common words and more complex sentences can’t be chosen and structured in such a way that they communicate meaning clearly and memorably.
A writer isn’t called to choose little words over big words, or short sentences over long. The writer is called to search for the right word, the right sentence and the right language to discover and communicate meaning – whatever form those words and sentences take.
There is a time – a perfectly acceptable time – for simple, understated prose:
He always had liked the weather. He became a weatherman to earn a living, but discovered it had become his whole life. He wanted to quit his job, but it didn’t seem the responsible thing to do.
But there also is a time for this:
While weather always had been a flirtation, a coy glance toward the effortless clouds and the steaming land left shining after rain, he never had intended prediction to become a habit, a means toward any end other than maintaining life and funding its strange necessities.
He dreamed of leaving, turning from the constraints of time and deadline to the deliciousness of impulse, the effortless breathing through the day once known in youth but now denied to the years-weary toiler he had become.
For a writer, choosing the right approach is the trick.