I am a non-native speaker trying to write in English.

Due to my reading of chiefly dated English literature, my vocabulary consists of many terms that are regarded as being archaic nowadays. In the majority of cases I don't know about their archaic condition until I look them up in a dictionary.

Often, however, I conceive a great affection towards suchlike and would like to use them in my own writings. I don't know how this may be perceived by native speakers, though.

How can I decide whether or not it is appropriate to use a term that is classed as archaic in modern works of literature?

4 Answers 4


This is very difficult to answer with any finality so I'll present a few thoughts that come to mind and hope they help you:

  1. Your use of such words creates a style to your writing. Every author has a style and readers usually enjoy styles that are not common. So, having a style that integrates the use of outmoded, though perfectly correct, words would bring a unique style to your writing.
  2. The hurdle of using such words though is that if you use too many, you may alienate your readers. This is a very ambiguous line and there is no perfect ratio of modern to archaic words that can be prescribed.
  3. On the other side of this is the possibility that you could get readers interested in expanding their own vocabulary.
  4. The ultimate success of your writing be will your ability, or lack thereof, to draw the reader in and create a compelling narrative, which is its own challenge regardless of the era of your vocabulary.

Best of luck! Do you have any samples of writing to post here so that we can better gauge the efficacy of your word choice?

  • 2
    I think this is a good answer until it reaches the last paragraph: I do not want to critique work or judge word choice. Jul 20, 2015 at 19:08
  • @Tave: reasonable comments. I made it so that it the community could, as consensus, decide if the use of archaic words was too strong so as to be a limiting factor in reader enjoyment, and not to critique or judge the quality of the work. I have no qualifying ability to judge the writing of another.
    – Andrew
    Jul 20, 2015 at 19:49
  • @Tave: Final paragraph edited out.
    – Andrew
    Jul 20, 2015 at 21:08
  • I think, for an archaic word such as "pantaloons" (pants, trousers), it could be imaginative in a romantic or nostalgic setting. So for a steampunk novel, "pantaloons" may be acceptable or even genius... but not for a sci-fi space thriller. I think it boils down to having a very good understanding of the archaic word definitions, and their context.
    – rdtsc
    Jul 22, 2015 at 12:01

I think this is where the teaching of literature becomes confusing and many have been set on the wrong path. Generally speaking, articles, essays, newspapers require very neutral distinct style. If you read a newspaper article or a work of non fiction you'll simply get the information.

Novels are totally different, on reading a novel you'll hear the narrative voice. A distinct narrative voice is essential. Personally, I couldn't read a 300 page newspaper article. The lack of voice is why so many journalists fail when attempting to write a novel.

Read John Grisham and you'll notice that he 'sounds' like himself. You 'hear' the Mississippi in his 'voice'.

Even a third-person narrator has an active component. 'Who is telling the story?" An archaic narrative would appear sympathetic if used in Historical Fiction. But with correct framing the style can be applied to most genre. The opening will set the tone. Maybe the story through the eyes if Grandpa.

e.g. "Millennials lack decorum and sensibility, particularly the girls. That turgid abomination: Hippety-Hop music is the root cause of their wanton promiscuity. They would be better to a more demure disposition, and they should wear frocks of a decent length."

Or maybe just watch this?



Using an occasional archaic word can give your stories a distinctive "feel". I think some readers, at least, will enjoy occasionally learning a new word.

But I can think of two big reasons to limit this.

One, while YOU might use archaic words, would your characters? If you have a character who is a literature professor and in dialog he uses words like "cozen" and "abjure", okay, not implausible. But if you have a tough street gang member using such words ... that would just sound very implausible. You might justify it, but you can't just throw it in.

Two, if you use too many archaic words, the reader is going to find your text incomprehensible. To some extent you can avoid or reduce the problem by giving a hint of the meeting in context. Like if you write, "He stabbed his victim with a sharp bodkin", the reader can readily guess that a "bodkin" must be some kind of knife or sword. But, "He opened the box and was surprised to see a carcanet inside" ... well that could be anything. But in general, if you use one word that is likely to be unfamiliar to the reader every few pages, it can be interesting. But ten per sentence and you might as well be writing in a foreign language.

As a special case, if you are writing historical fiction, a certain amount of archaic words are expected and help to set the tone. I think it would break the feel of a book set in ancient Rome if a character says, "Oh no, Publius has Hansen's disease!" If I was writing such a story, I'd have the character say that he has "leprosy". One could quibble that presumably the characters are speaking Latin and the English is a translation, so why shouldn't we translate into 21st century English rather than 19th century English? But it just ... feels wrong.


You use any word where it is appropriate. There is a place for a colloquialism just like there is a place for an archaic word. It has to match the voice of a character or narrator.

If you are writing about metro geeks, it would not be appropriate if they spoke like medieval peasants.

I worked with an editor who provided very harsh critique to my own writing along the same lines as what you are now concerned about. She was concerned that I was using too many colloquialisms. But my characters were very ordinary people who should be expected to speak in such voice! She had an issue with my use of obsolete words. But my characters were ancient beings who spent eternity in hibernation!

Take a step back and a second look at your work. Are the characters using appropriate language? Yes/No. And if your command of English does not allow for making that determination by yourself then seek a competent editor.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.