Do You Know What You’re Talking About?

Have you ever read anything by Ernest Hemingway as well as by William Faulkner?  If not, are you at least familiar with their feud regarding their critique of each other’s style of writing? Faulkner thought Hemingway appeared to be simpleminded, and Hemingway thought Faulkner appeared to be too pretentious.

Here’s an example of Hemingway’s writing as taken from The Old Man and the Sea:

You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

Here’s an example of Faulkner’s writing as taken from Intruder in the Dust:

The American really loves nothing but his automobile: not his wife his child nor his country nor even his bank-account first (in fact he doesn’t really love that bank-account nearly as much as foreigners like to think because he will spend almost any or all of it for almost anything provided it is valueless enough) but his motor-car. Because the automobile has become our national sex symbol. We cannot really enjoy anything unless we can go up an alley for it. Yet our whole background and raising and training forbids the sub rosa and surreptitious. So we have to divorce our wife today in order to remove from our mistress the odium of mistress in order to divorce our wife tomorrow in order to remove from our mistress and so on. 

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Which do you prefer? Personally, I like Hemingway’s writing style better. To me, Faulkner uses so many words, words, WORDS, that I kind of want to gouge my eyes out! When people talk that way to me, I feel like a student in Charlie Brown’s class and they sound like the teacher.  (If you don’t know the “Wahn wah, wahn wah wah, wahn wah” noise I’m referring to, click here to go to see it on YouTube.)

When I write, I typically try not to repeat the same phrases too often or use the same adjectives or adverbs too many times in a row.  But there’s a fine line between refusing to repeat yourself unless it’s absolutely necessary and going out of your way to absolutely never use the same word twice at any cost.

I think part of using language as an art form also involves knowing your target audience.  I mean, even though I know a lot of words and have a vast vocabulary, I don’t like to use a lot of what I know for anything other than business correspondence.  For example, unless I am writing for (or about) Methuselah’s grandmother, I won’t likely say that my character paid a sawbuck and two bits to put petrol in his oil burner, even though I clearly know that my example would mean that the character put $10.25 worth of gas in his car.

As such, whenever I can’t think of a good word to replace one that I might be overusing, I, of course, go to the thesaurus.  However, even when I find a word there that sounds like a good fit (or perhaps just sounds lyrical or intelligent), if it’s a word that’s so outdated or uncommon, I’ll typically opt for something else when possible.  When I read, I like to learn new words and go to the dictionary… sometimes.  But if I have to do that on every other page, it feels more like work than something enjoyable, and I’ll move on to something else.

I knew someone once who I guess was trying to make herself feel or look important by using big words all the time, however, when she spoke to me, she didn’t know her audience.  Perhaps she had a bevy of illiterate friends, or perhaps her peers had just never cared to call her out for what she was doing wrong.  You see, even though she actually knew impressive words, it was obvious that she didn’t really know what they meant, so nothing she wrote and hardly anything she said made sense.

The girl I’m talking about reminded me of the “Friends” episode where Chandler and Monica asked Joey to write a recommendation letter to the adoption agency for them.  In order to sound smart, however, he used a thesaurus for every word.  Instead of saying, “They are warm, nice people with big hearts,” the letter said, “They are humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”  And then Joey signed it, “Baby Kangaroo.”

So, my former friend talked and wrote similarly.  It was frustrating, to say the least.  I finally had enough one day when she was trying to sound like a big shot and get sympathy for her child who was having his tonsils removed.  (And please don’t jump me for sounding insensitive.  When my son was little, he was in the hospital nearly as much as he was out.  In fact, he spent his first two Christmases in a croup tents, and his first word was “doctor,” so I’m definitely not cold to a sick child, just fed up with this particular mama.) 

“I think this is one of the worst cases of tonsillitis his doctor has ever seen.  It’s truly atrocious,” she said as she over emoted.  “His pediatrician referred him to an E.N.T. doctor and an otolaryngologist!”

I looked her in the eye and as sincerely as possible said, “Alice, you do realize that an E.N.T. and an otolaryngologist are the same thing, don’t you?” 

She never spoke to me again.

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20 thoughts on “Do You Know What You’re Talking About?

    • Thank you. If I even as much as watch a movie that doesn’t grab me after 15 minutes, I walk out. I do’t want to invest two hours of my life that I’ll never get back on rubbish. So if a book doesn’t grab me by the first chapter, I’m out. 🙂

  1. Couldn’t agree more!! I think it was Churchill who said, “Old words are best, and best of all when short.” Although that may be merely close, since I didn’t look it up. Great article.

  2. I’ve always been more of a Hemingway person myself – when reading and when writing. I do like sliding in big words now and then, and I do like having to look them up now and then as well.

    I’ve had the same trouble as you with people using big words incorrectly. It’s happened a few times at work. Someone will use a big word and, since I love to learn words, I’ll ask them what it means. Then, I’ll check it in the dictionary just to be sure….and they’re hardly ever right. 😦 oh well, at least I learn a new word in the process. :p

  3. Interesting. My own experience is that the use of a large, varied, and polysyllabic vocabulary is a compliment to the listener’s or reader’s intelligence, not evidence of “showing off.” For example, over a period of nearly five years, I read the two major Irish newspapers daily, and observed Irish journalists routinely use big words, archaic words, and strings of alliterative words in newspaper columns, but nobody ever remarked on their writing style (and Irish newspaper readers are not shy about criticizing columnists). The words were always used appropriately. Must be something cultural. BTW, I’m not Irish. I’m half French and half Polish (like Chopin, but I can’t play the piano anywhere near as well.)

    • Being autistic, I tend to gravitate toward the larger, more rarely used words myself. Having been raised by grandparents, I am also familiar with more of the outdated words than most people my age. And then having been a paralegal for more than a dozen years, I also tend to know a lot of legal language. That said, I have been accused on numerous occasions of appearing to show off or purposefully make others feel stupid (which was never my intention). So, over the years, usually unless I am writing a business letter or authoring a legal contract, I tend to tone it down, whether I am writing or speaking, for my own self-preservation. That’s very interesting about the Irish newspapers, and I do agree that as a reader (or consumer in any market), I do not like when my intelligence is insulted, either. I guess there has to be a happy medium.

  4. What a great way to explain literary differences and taste. I tend to agree with you about “wordy” people. I also would tend to think that while wanting to be viewed at literary, educated bringing some sort of expert on whatever subject. The simplest said can at times be the most meant. While at times in silence there is a complete conversations going on between 2 minds.

  5. lol..I am not a writer, but I love to do photo essays ( blog photo essays) which do not require big words-tee hee…but I do understand what you mean about people that have to always appear they are intelligent by using big words..and I do remember Charlie Brown WaWaWa-lol…I use to read the little Charlie Brown comic books when I was in elementary school-oops..that dates me!:-) I have to agree less is more with words in my book! Even in art less is more! Even living life less is more!!!:-) great post

  6. Pingback: What’s YOUR Claim to Fame? | Christine Plouvier, Novelist

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