View Full Version : Vocabulary - to Limit or not to Limit?

12-04-2006, 11:56 PM
For YA novels, let's say ages 10 and up, there seem to be two ways to look at this issue - 1) Limit vocab to words that won't put off younger and/or reluctant readers OR 2) Use multisyllabic vernacular profligately and encourage your readership to keep a dictionary in the vicinity of your book. OK, maybe there's a middle ground between the two.

What are your thoughts and experiences with the market on this point? Anyone?

12-05-2006, 12:31 AM
I think people should just write how they write. I tend to use big words with simple straight forward description, and that's worked well for me. All the young adults who've read my work (betas mind) have never had a problem. I think the only thing that might annoy them is if you're writing too simply on purpose. Then it could be seen as patronizing. I also don't think you should try to reword everything with a thesaurus. It just doesn't sound natural, although using one sparingly is helpful.

So, what does everyone else think?

12-05-2006, 01:55 AM
I write for teens and for adults, and I don't consciously use different vocabulary. My first YA novel actually grew out of an adult short story and I didn't really shift how I was writing at all. Having said that, I tend to lean towards fairly straighforward writing and simple vocab anyway... still, when less common words show up, I leave them in.

I think there are great YA novels that have dead simple language and are fairly accessible to lower-vocab readers... but also there are lots of teens who mostly read adult fiction and would have no problem with more sophisticated language. So I think we should write in a way that works for us and for the stories we want to tell.


12-05-2006, 02:23 AM
I think people should just write how they write.

I write the way I talk. Less complicated.

Au ravioli,

12-05-2006, 04:01 AM
Bunnicula!! I forgot all about that book! Just reading that title popped another one in my head: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

I remember loving both... I sometimes wonder if it would be disappointing to go back and reread books that I loved back in the day.

Anyway, I am writing a YA with my mother, and we have knock-down-drag-out fights over some of my word choices (I tend to be the wordier of the two). Our latest disagreement was over the words "inauspicious" and "consternation." Both great words... I think dropping a good word in every now and then with enough context isn't awful. It's how I learned most words growing up.

12-05-2006, 12:58 PM
My vocabulary changes depending on whether I'm writing in first or third person. In third person I use more complex words than I tend to in first, because when I write in first I am not always writing in the character of a person with a large vocabulary. One word that stuck out at me in my YA novel was 'ostensibly'. A character used it but I later took it out because it just didn't sit right with the sort of person she was.

Sorry, that probably doesn't help, does it? I think my answer is 'yes and no'.

12-05-2006, 06:52 PM
A few folks chided me for using words like "scrutinized", "recluse" and "subterranean" in a middle-reader. Left 'em in anyway. Got ink.

Soccer Mom
12-05-2006, 07:17 PM
I learned my extensive, extravagant vocabulary from reading. ;) As a child. Use the words you feel are right.

12-05-2006, 09:29 PM
If a kid never comes across a hard word, or a word they would never encounter in every day life, how are they going to expand their vocabularies?

Lisa McMann
12-07-2006, 09:27 AM
Know what? We need to stop talking down to kids.

It's easier today than ever before to look up a word, by using dictionary.com.

We're all so worried about being too smart for kids, and in the process, we're dumbing down America/the world.

Just write it.

(ps not intentionally crabby, and any apparent crabbiness is not directed at the OP... I just came in here and have read several threads about 'what we should and shouldn't do' to be politically correct in MG and YA. Sheesh!!! Everybody needs to go read "To Kill a Mockingbird" again, and realize THAT story is told from the POV of a 6-8 year old, and involves rape, racism, crime, murder, and a hell of a lot of big words. That book today? From an 8-year-old POV? Would be considered MG or maybe YA, according to the new standards of publishing. Sometimes I wish there weren't so many categories, and so many rules. Back when TKAM was published, there was no such thing as YA. It was an adult book, but people of all ages read it. My kids LOVED it at ages 7 & 10, just as I loved it the first time I read it, in high school.)

People, please stop fretting. Kids today deal with much worse stuff than we ever did. They can handle it, and they can handle big words. Just write.

12-07-2006, 10:18 AM
We have six children. We never baby talked to any of them. They learned speech early and do very well in school.

12-07-2006, 05:47 PM
My stories are meant for kids but I don't recall ever once making a conscious decision to use or not use any particular phrase or word simply because of the intended reader.

Grey Malkin
12-07-2006, 08:12 PM
I make conscious decisions all the time about particular words or phrases that a YA character wouldn't use. During the first draft, all kinds of adult terms get in there, but as the voice of the character develops I find that I have to rake a lot of that out. So I don't cut vocab for the reader, but to help make the character sound the age they're meant to be.

12-07-2006, 10:32 PM
Well I think there is a difference especially when writing third person versus first. I totally agree with Grey Malkin that if you are writing YA first person, you have to work very carefully on choosing the right words for the character. But that goes with anything really and has less to do with kids understanding and more on creating a voice. I love using big words in my MG. And I think kids like it too. I can still remember learning words in books I read and then having fun using them over and over again. My poor parents.

(Lisa, well put!)

12-08-2006, 07:59 PM
Thank you for the let's not dumb down comment! I tried not to give my opinion in the initial post, but I'm glad to see so much agreement - yes of course 6 year-old characters won't have access to words like "precocious" unless they are particularly precocious and were perhaps brought up to be just a little supercilious, and first-person narrative from younger/less word-savvy characters would abide by the same rule. But as for older/adult characters and third-person narrators, they should accept permission to speak freely, yes?

12-08-2006, 08:09 PM
I just try to use the appropriate word for the situation. A friend complained that a 10-12 year old wouldn't say "this is such a cliche," but I left it in my book and we agreed to disagree on the point. A few weeks later, she was in a diner when a 12-year-old-ish soccer team came in, and she overheard a boy say exactly that!
I have, however, avoided any cursing in the book.

12-08-2006, 08:13 PM
I just had a flashback to my childhood:

Dad: "Don't be such a shrew!"
Me: "What's a shrew?"
Dad: "Look it up in the dictionary."
The dictionary has always been my friend.

12-17-2006, 01:20 AM
I use big words...not deliberately, but that's just my style...and I think my current main project is going to turn out to be YA (or at least "the publisher doesn't admit it but people of YA age read it" a la Mercedes Lackey). I feel like, if you're really using words right, it should usually be pretty clear from context what they mean anyway.

Also, I don't remember where I read this (so now I have to dig it up, or it'll drive me crazy) but I read somewhere that there's a writer who lets himself go up to 8th grade reading level in YA because the kids like big words to some extent (makes them feel like they're being taken seriously as readers, I guess) but this same writer gets worried if anything for the mainstream adult population gets above 5th grade reading level. I thought that was odd, but then, when I thought about the kids and adults I know, it made sense.

Edit: Of course, the rules are different for hi-lo--I haven't looked into that as a writer 'cause that's just not how my brain's wired, but I'm a student teacher so I'm at least familiar with the difference.

12-17-2006, 04:30 PM
I just had a flashback to my childhood:

Dad: "Don't be such a shrew!"
Me: "What's a shrew?"
Dad: "Look it up in the dictionary."
The dictionary has always been my friend.

Ah, "look it up" - the soundbite of my childhood! Not that I was ever called a shrew (I love that word! Shreeeeew!), but I was a very inquisitive kid, so whenever my mum was fed up with my endless questions, I was told to look it up in the encyclopedia/dictionary. I grew very fond of the 12 volume encyclopedia, always kept at the bottom shelf for my easy reach.

01-10-2007, 05:55 PM
I'm reading a book called A Circle of Quiet, by Madelaine l'Engle, at the moment. She was writing in 1972, and what she has to say on limiting vocabulary still seems very pertinent today:

"To give a writer a controlled-vocabulary list is manipulating both writer and reader. It keeps the child within his present capacity, on the bland assumption that growth is even and orderly and rational, instead of something that happens in great unexpected leaps and bounds. It ties the author down aand takes away his creative freedom, and completely ignores the fact that the good writer will always limit himself. The simplest word is almost always the right word."