by Joanna Liu (Editor-in-Chief)
In the movie Flash of Genius, the main character, Dr. Robert Kearns, made a convincing argument against Ford Motor Company at trial, using Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.” The scene describes the concept of creativity as arranging available tools into a new pattern. English is a simple and elegant language. Good writing is not determined by how many difficult words you can use, but rather by how you group simple words together.
I recently read an article about how John McPhee, pioneer of creative non-fiction, often looked up the words he knew, rather than the words he didn’t. I thought that was an extremely interesting concept.
My mother once told me that as a young child, she would just read the dictionary for hours, reading the definitions and learning how to use each phrase precisely. I never really understood the value of a good dictionary until recently.
Here are some ways you can use dictionaries to practice your writing skills. I found this a beneficial practice for my young journalists and creative writing students.
Usage #1: Replace a word with its definition
In some dictionaries, words can be defined so sophisticatedly that there is almost a poetic rhythm. In the article “You’re probably using the wrong dictionary,” the author James Somers introduced the secret weapon that John McPhee used ─ Webster’s dictionary of 1828 and 1913 version.
First, I check the definition of a simple word, such as “cold.” Next, I find one definition that best describes my usage. Then, I get inspiration from the definitions and replace the word with parts of the definition.
Cold: Lacking the sensation of warmth; suffering from the absence of heat; chilly; shivering; as, to be cold.
Original Sentence: He felt cold. He shivered.
New Sentence: Suffering from the absence of heat, he shivered.
Play: Amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
Original Sentence: The kids were playing House.
New Sentence: The kids engaged themselves in the imaginative pretense of being parents.
Jump: push oneself up off the ground by the muscular action of the feet and legs
Original Sentence: He jumped up.
New Sentence: He kicked his feet and pushed himself into the air as hard as he could.
Usage #2 Look up the example sentences given on a good dictionary.
As I mentioned earlier, a good dictionary gives great examples. If you search the word “part” in dictionary.com, you get one definition and a following example sentence like this:
a portion or division of a whole that is separate or distinct; piece, fragment, fraction, or section; constituent: the rear part of the house; to glue the two parts together.
Part (verb used with object)
to go apart from or leave one another, as persons: We'll part no more.
It is hard to get any inspiration from an example sentence like those above because a modern dictionary’s aim is to explain words in our modern language concisely and clearly, so examples are simple and easy to understand.
However if you looked up “part” in the Webster 1913 version, you will find:
1. One of the portions, equal or unequal, into which anything is divided, or regarded as divided; something less than a whole; a number, quantity, mass, or the like, regarded as going to make up, with others, a larger number, quantity, mass, etc., whether actually separate or not; a piece; a fragment; a fraction; a division; a member; a constituent.
I am a part of all that I have met. Tennyson.
5. To separate by a process of extraction, elimination, or secretion; as, to part gold from silver.
The liver minds his own affair, . . . And parts and strains the vital juices. Prior.
6. To leave; to quit. [Obs.]
Since presently your souls must part your bodies. Shak.
Now you see how reading the right dictionary is like studying from literature’s finest masters! Does your dictionary give example sentences from English poets like Matthew Prior, Alfred Tennyson and William Shakespeare?
Usage #3 - Don’t use the Thesaurus blindly. Check the definitions of each and find the exact meaning.
I generally don’t mind my students using a Thesaurus to find a better word, but sometimes they think changing a simple word with a difficult one is always better. So they blindly search for a synonym without knowing the difference between each word. In John McPhee’s article, Draft No. 4, he said exactly what I have been trying to tell my writers,
“In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don’t talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic word and a fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better. The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fill.”
If you look up the word “understand’ in Thesaurus, you find “apprehend, realize, recognize, interpret, conceive, sense, accept, be aware of, figure out, catch on…”
To know which word to use, you should check the meanings of each in a dictionary. Let’s try to figure out the difference between apprehend, conceive and interpret.
Apprehend: To take or seize; to take hold of with the understanding
Conceive: To form in the mind; to plan; to devise; to generate; to originate; as, to conceive a purpose, plan, hope.
Interpret: To explain or tell the meaning of; to expound; to translate orally into intelligible or familiar language or terms; to decipher; to define
Each word is different and unique. Each can replace “understand” in a unique situation.
I cannot understand this difficult concept -> I cannot apprehend this difficult concept.
I understood the idea one day in my sleep -> I conceived the idea one day in my sleep.
I can’t understand the meaning of his last words -> I can’t interpret the meaning of his last words.
Finding the right word is important. In writing ─ and in many other professions ─ accuracy is what separates masters from amateurs.
The importance of accuracy in language usage is amplified when working with ESL students. One of my students wanted to say the “water is clear (transparent) and sparkling,” but instead wrote “the water is clean and glowing.” Grammatically, the sentence is correct, and we can guess what the student is trying to say. However, the writing is not conveying the idea the student wanted.
When students’ parents ask me what their child can do to write better, I usually tell them to work on vocabulary and literary devices. Too often I hear parents say, “My child has a great vocabulary, she reads a lot. She just needs to improve other writing techniques.” I tend to advise them that vocabulary is not just about how many words you know, it is about knowing how to use them in a manner that is precise and innovative.
I hope these tips can help anyone like me who is aiming to be a better writer, encouraging you to reexamine each word you use, and to make your dictionary your best friend again.