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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Vocabulary Builders (Product Review)

My vocab builder can beat up your vocab builder!
If you buy a vocabulary builder (and I don't recommend it), get the right one.

There are a lot of vocabulary builders out there for the writer anxious that their lexicon might need a little punching up before they have the kind of vernacular that will turn heads. And while these books can have a tiny bit of limited usefulness to a writer, they are not all they're cracked up to be and DEFINITELY not all created equally.

For a while there I shared this deep seated anxiety that if I wasn't able to deftly work "pulchritudinous" into my prose, I was going to be lost among the oceans of aspiring writers. (Who knew that the thing that would actually set me apart would be sitting down and writing?) The end result being that I have a half a dozen of these books most of which haven't done anything but increase the weight of every subsequent move I've made by about five pounds.

So if you really want my advice, you don't need these at all. And there are two main reasons for that:

1) The current trends in most modern writing is to write how we speak–generally more pragmatic and less baroque. We have major writing style guides telling us to keep it simple and publishers and readers tolerate far less purple prose from any modern writer than they might from, for example, a Victorian author or even 20th century writer. While many writers might know a three dollar synonym for what they're saying, most of the time it is simpler, more concrete, and more accessible writing to pick an easier word unless the complicated word captures the meaning far, far more elegantly and precisely. Literature (and to a greater degree art) is deliberately casting off much of the high-society elitism of "fine art" that is acutely emblematic within Anglophone culture's favoritism of Latin roots and Norman/French expressions instead of anglo saxon based "pleb language." (Think imbibe vs. drink if you want an example of an ostentatious word with absolutely no added meaning.)  It's just not en-vogue anymore to confuse readers with an elevated vocabulary.

Disclaimer: you can do it.  And a few writers do, but they also do it in a very natural way. Consciously attempting to do so usually leads to at best feigned savvy and at worse a stilted, prolix prose using words bordering on anachronistic. Like a politician who makes every question about the talking points, you are going to be working too hard to show off the words you've learned instead of just picking them when they are the exactly right word for what you mean. Which brings me to the much more important second point.

2) If you use a vocabulary builder to build your vocabulary, your vocabulary is going to FEEL like you used a vocabulary builder to build your vocabulary. If you pepper in a bunch of big words just to show off it's going to feel pretentious and contrived. It kind of shows.

The best way to get a big vocabulary is to read a lot. You will encounter words you've not seen before and decide if you want to try to muddle through from context or must look them up, and you will enjoy the delight of the adroit wordsmith to slip in the occasional words that titillate you and cause you work them into something you write five times in as many pages for the love of them (later to be revised down to only the best one, of course) your vocabulary will grow in a natural way. You won't be learning 5 roots and 25 words as part of "Unit 1" in a futile attempt to "catch em all," but rather your love for words will develop naturally as you encounter words in the wild that you realize have some power you've always wanted to be able to capture. Also, as you see the prose of other writers you will learn how you want your own writing voice resonate (because we give Faulkner a lot more latitude to send us to the dictionary every page or two than we would The Orcslayer Deathninja Chronicles, trust me).

When you have a big vocabulary, it can give you access to that PERFECT word, and that is a wonderful ability. But an artificially inflated vocabulary kind of feels like it is exactly that.

On the other hand, vocabulary builders are pretty fucking great for recognizing the words that already exist out in the world, for second language speakers, or for anyone still in a situations where they might have vocabulary tests. Also, some writers are not going to take the first part of this article's advice. The anxiety a new writer can feel of worrying about the inadequacy of their own natural lexicon can be potent. Maybe not as fierce as Trump working about the size of his.........hands, but potent.

If you must "build your vocabulary," don't get one of those books that is just a bunch of random complicated words. Those things are absolute crap. They won't help you at all, and you would basically have to make flashcards to even get close to absorbing the material. Might as well just read the dictionary for all the good it'll do you. (Not that you can't do this, but it's not a great way to RETAIN what you've learned.) The vocabulary builders I'm talking about here are far more than simply vocabulary books with big words. They are intended to help figure out prefixes, suffixes and roots.

So let me show you what you want in a vocab builder using these two examples.

I picked my worst and best versions. Ida Ehrlich's Instant Vocabulary and Merrian Webster's Vocabulary builder respectively. I don't know if my best is the best (especially not today) but this will give you an idea of what to look for.

Both of these books are still in print. (Though each is in a new edition.)  You can get a look from their sample pages (the links under each picture) what I'm talking about beyond the pictures–and probably easier to read.
Instant Vocabulary
Vocabulary Builder
Notice how in the Ehrlich, all you get is a "key." The key is defined in bold without any explanation. Then you get some sample words that employ that key and their definitions. There is a little practice quiz at the end of each section that you will literally never do.

This is not a great way to learn. It's okay, and it'll do in a pinch, but let's look at the Merriam Webster.

You have the same basic idea to start. A prefix, suffix, or root. But instead of just the meaning you get its latin source, a little history and some sample words. They explain how the word shakes out in English. There are only four example words, but each one is not only defined but also the link to the root is explained, and there is a sample sentence.

This is a much more comprehensive lesson that is far FAR more likely to actually stick than Ehrlich's "keys." So if you have to get a vocabulary builder (though what most writers really need is to read more), and whether you buy an actual book or use some sort of online resource, get one like the Merriam Webster that has sample sentences, explanations, and history rather than just one that lists words and meanings.

Overall Value: 3 (Ehrlich)- 5 (Merriam Webster)


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