Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz. As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also 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 turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world. Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.
Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed 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. Each evening after supper, we’d linger at the table and flip through my flashcards, white rectangles of cardboard with a red word printed on one side and its black definition on the other. Always, it was a family affair. My mother 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 spell it back to him, and use it in a sentence.
Sometimes, we made the drill even more of a game by using each word in the funniest sentence possible. If we were feeling creative, we’d indulge my pun-loving dad and punish each other with terrible wordplay.
Occasionally, I helped myself remember a spelling by using a sentence as a clue. It seemed impossible to learn how to spell chrysanthemum, until 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,” I thought to myself. I still use that crutch today.
Even the best vocabulary doesn’t guarantee good writing, of course, so our teachers provided other tools, encouraging us to put them to use as we shaped and molded our words into stories and essays. By third grade, we were diagramming sentences. Easy enough in the beginning, the exercise became increasingly difficult. Once we’d identified and properly placed subjects, predicates, articles and prepositions, we moved on to independent and dependent clauses. Adjectives and adverbs began to appear. Before long, little stems, platforms, and divisions reached out to the very edge of meaning.
“The dog chased the cat” was where we began, but it wasn’t long before we were attempting to pull apart sentences like, “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, threatening banishment.”
We diagrammed it all. One by one, each class member was called to the blackboard to demonstrate proficiency. By the time she finished working, or he gave up and stepped back, the blackboard was covered with lines, slashes, dashes, and arrows. Breathless classmates collapsed into giggles as everyone awaited the teacher’s verdict. And then, we began again.
Two assumptions about language seem to have underlain those early exercises — that a more expansive vocabulary is better than one which is limited, and that the structure of a sentence needs to remain clear even as it’s being loaded down with adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions until it bows like a picnic table piled high with fried chicken and pie.
Those days of learning to serve up appetizing words and sentences came to mind when a friend mentioned he’d been attending class to learn how to write shorter sentences. At the time, I suspected he was joking. As it turned out, he wasn’t — at least, not entirely. Still, his remark brought to mind assorted bits of advice I received after beginning to write.
Short sentences are good. Shorter sentences are better.
Don’t overwhelm your reader with complexity.
Never use words that might require a dictionary.
Remember that readers have short attention spans.
Write so that a sixth grader can understand what you have to say.
Limit yourself to one or two syllable words whenever possible.
Never write a piece exceeding 300 words.
Gathered up into one place and committed to the page, the admonitions appear to be variations on one further bit of advice.
Remember that you are writing for dunces.
If the same advice were offered in other fields, the absurdity would become obvious.
Advise an artist to limit herself to primary colors, with brush strokes no longer than one inch in length, and it’s a turpentine bath for you. Tell a master gardener to keep his plants below six inches in height or use only annuals, and you’ll be tossed onto the compost heap. Suggest to a chef that she restrict herself to recipes using five ingredients or fewer, or dishes which take no longer than ten minutes to prepare, and you’ll be eating frozen dinners — alone.
Even if you manage to obtain a painting for your wall, a few blooms for your patio and dinner for your table, the look and taste of life will be diminished immeasurably.
Of course I’m no more fond of incomprehensible paragraphs, misused words, or sloppy grammatical constructions than the next person. But seeking out new words, and using those words in ever more complex sentences, doesn’t have to feel pretentious. It can make every sort of writing more enjoyable for the reader.
Common words and declarative sentences have a legitimate role to play in everything from daily journalism to great literature. But there are times when reality itself pushes the boundaries of language. When that happens, there’s no good 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 meant to be limited to one-syllable words, or to live in a world dominated by flat, colorless sentences. The writer is called to search out the best word, the most evocative sentence, and the most resonant image possible as language is shaped to discover and communicate meaning.
There is a time for this sort of simple, understated prose.
As a youth, he rarely had given the weather much thought. He became a forecaster rather than a reporter almost by accident and now, after years of earning a living in the field, had tired of its incessant demands. The urge to quit, to simply walk away, seemed overwhelming. Still, a sense of responsibility, combined with his memory of the storm, held him at his desk…
But there also is a time for a slightly different approach.
Once a simple flirtation, a matter of coy glances directed to passing clouds, weather had grown to become his passion — perhaps even an obsession. For years the shining land, steaming and shimmering after rain, had consumed his life in ways he never could have predicted, reshaping it as surely as the forces working their will across the land itself.
That prediction should have grown to be a habit, little more than a means of maintaining life and funding its strange necessities, seemed inexplicable. He dreamed of leaving, turning from the constraints of time and deadline to the deliciousness of impulse, the effortless enjoyment of the day common enough in youth, but now seemingly denied to the years-weary toiler he had become…
For any of us, White seems to suggest, there is a multitude of writing choices. Perhaps having faith in our ability to choose wisely is the trick.