12 July 2012

The Power of a Strong Vocabulary

I keep hearing there is a dumbing down of America. I don't want to believe it, but I'm reminded that:
  • Educators have stopped teaching cursive writing in elementary schools.
  • We are relying more and more on spell check rather than knowing how to spell.
  • More and more we are using a text-derived shorthand language, which is neither correctly spelled or as a gauge of a good vocabulary.   
Editors have said the average language level for our novels and short stories should be written for an eighth-grade reading audience.

Just as I am buying into the "dumbing down of America," I find a spark of hope. The last couple of years, I've spent considerable time with young people on a regular basis. From my new grand daughter and our time with children's programming on television to the college students I've been fortunate to interact with, I can vouch that the reading audience is out there and selectively reading on a better grade level than what we have been told to expect.

Cuddled with my grand daughter, we found on Sesame Street, Eva Longoria presented the word of the day: exquisite.

That afternoon, Word Girl concentrated her energies on the word pensive. These are early school educational programs. It looks like the writers for those programs expect the next generation to have extensive vocabularies. Good for them to recognize the need for quality education for our little ones.

Those books that reach a popularity with the masses that have introduced new words for our dictionaries --like muggles from the Harry Potter series -- and quark  from Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce and the word, robotics, from Isaac Asimov, have done a great service to readers. They made reading FUN.

Something about knowing the new "in" words found in a story we love and then sharing them with our friends is a wonderful way writers can ensure readers continue being readers all their lives. I think those authors finding ways to encourage their young reader's to embrace a larger vocabulary with choices like tesserae and apothecary from The Hunger Games, is doing anything but dumbing down American readers.

So what about the adult mystery audience? I don't enjoy novels that force me to head for the dictionary every page, but I do like learning a new term or phrase. It's my opinion if we can keep learning, we grow old slower than those who have given up on additional knowledge.

The idea of being the writer of great mysteries means delivering all the clues in just the right measures to allow the reader to almost guess the outcome.

As a writer, I've read between the lines too much not to usually guess who-done-it and why. That's why when I discover writing that surprises me with its delicate hiding of clues where I should have noticed them like the envelope hidden in plain sight in Poe's The Purloined Letter, that I am in awe and more than eager to read more from the author.

I don't want to be treated like someone without a brain who needs someone to lay the clues all out like a clear blueprint which a child could understand.

As a reader, I want to be entertained and elevated by the language. As a mystery reader, I want to be mindful of the careful plotting and clues being planted and tenderly cared for so as not to be disturbed before they are ready to emerge like tiny buds on a rosebush. Pretty enough to keep my interest and just thorny enough to be dangerous is exactly how I like mysteries.

I adore films and television, but not so much those that are expecting not to know when to laugh so I'm provided with a prompting laugh track. I don't want to know in the first scene who committed the crime. I don't want the detective in a series to deduce the criminal's motives in the initial setup.

That's probably why I was astounded to find how wonderfully written the television series "Revenge" turned out to be this first season. 

Good writing is being done everyday all over America. Isn't it nice we still have an audience for such clever authors? 

American readers are smarter than they are given credit for being. Thanks for being one of them!


  1. I haven't seen Revenge yet, Deborah.

    Yesterday we were talking about laugh tracks and how they condition audiences to laugh, even when the material isn't funny. They are so predicable though, one of the reasons I prefer reading.

  2. A nice, hopeful piece.
    But then I've always felt that people who are actually around children and youth are more positive than people who get all their info from the TV

  3. Great post Deborah! I am also saddened at the loss of cursive writing in schools and I always thought when I have children I will want to strongly encourage spelling, due to my own increasing need for spell check. It's encouraging to know there are still some out there promoting learning at a higher level for the sake of knowledge itself, rather than teach to the test for mere survival. The ability for our brain to continue to gain knowledge even as our body slow down with age is such gift none of us should take for granted. On that note, I might turn on Sesame Street during my morning coffee for some exquisite Big Bird!

  4. News Flash: It isn't about Big Bird or even Bert & Ernie any more. It has become The Elmo Show! THAT surprised me big time.

  5. Connie Krenning12 July, 2012 10:56

    I agree with you 100% We need to have reading material that entices us to read further, something to make us stretch our imagination, thought process or even to learn a new word. It is very sad that cursive writing is not taught any longer and we rely so much on computers and spell check. Can you even remember the last time you did addition in your head verses using a calculator? America needs to exercise our brains and bodies.. We have in many cases become couch potatoes with both the mind and body. My hope is that programs and reading material will continue to enhance our knowledge base as well. Great article Deborah! Very nicely written with excellent content! Perhaps you just got someone off of the couch and onto higher learning!

  6. That was an excellent piece. And I agree with Leigh (help!!!!!)

    I am so bad that if I am reading a book and it has a grammatical error I wonder if the author made it or the publishing of said material....but it is distracting!

    Texting is evil too. I spell out. :-)

  7. Oh, no! I agree with alisa, too! (laughing)

    I forgot to mention that I like keeping a dictionary nearby and enjoy novels that challenge the brain.

  8. Love the post. I don't watch TV news anymore because I prefer to read my local newspaper to keep it in business and the national newspapers online. What sets my teeth on edge is to see typos, spelling mistakes, and mistakes in grammar. It seems that proof reading is no longer done, and there are no copy editors anymore.

    Here in Knox County reading is still taught in a way that makes the kids think. My 8 year old grandson sometimes discusses what he has read with either me or his dad. He loves to argue or debate the meaning of what ever he has read. Need I say his dad and I are always wrong.

    Like Leigh, I keep a dictionary nearby when I'm reading or writing.

  9. Makes me think of the author Clark Ashton Smith who tried to learn one new (and usually exotic) word a week.

  10. Come to think of it, I improved my vocabulary by reading comic books!


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