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I am a non-native English user and whenever I write something is it better that I use simple words or some rare and seldomly used words? I mean native-speakers should surely understand basic English and simple everyday words, maybe except for a few difficult ones, but will they understand a text containing rare words which are seldomly used in writing, speech and everyday English?

On one hand I wish to have a text that can be easily read by most users of English without having the need to look up most of the words in the dictionary. On the other hand I want to have an elaborate style of writing with as many elegant and "sexy" words as possible, thus displaying an excellent knowledge of English.

This troubles me since I'm not sure which is better.

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Using words wrongly or awkwardly sounds much worse than having a restricted vocabulary. Therefore, your best bet is to stick to words you know well and are comfortable with. If that includes a wider variety of words, great! But if that restricts you to simpler words, so be it. It's entirely possible to build an impressive, elegant style entirely out of simple words.

I have recent personal experience with this. I'm working on a book aimed at a middle-grade audience. When I made the choice to switch to a first-person narrator I had to go back through the book and simplify my word choices. But in many cases that resulted in stronger, more vivid or less cliched sentences.

Salting your language with fancy words rarely produces the desired impression --instead it gives the impression you are trying too hard. If those words are actually part of your fluent vocabulary, you won't need to try to use them.

  • So I should aim for simplicity in my style of writing and try as much as I can to keep to the words each and everyone will be able to understand easily, not having the need to look them up or try to remember them? Does that concern those rare definitions of simple words, such that aren't frequently used? – SovereignSun Sep 19 '18 at 15:19
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    Of course you need to keep your audience in mind, but my advice is less about what words they will easily understand, and more about sticking to words you are fluent with. An aptly used word, in context, can explain itself. A poorly used one runs the risk of inadvertent self parody. Salting your language with fancy words rarely produces the desired impression --instead it gives the impression you are trying too hard. If those words are actually part of your fluent vocabulary, you won't need to try to use them. – Chris Sunami Sep 19 '18 at 15:33
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    A great example of 'oversalted' prose is 'renowned' Dan Brown. – Matthew Dave Sep 21 '18 at 10:16
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Why must one choose between simple and fancy? A lot of fancy words (meaning, not commonly used) become annoying to read; a lot of simple words (meaning, most commonly used words) become boring. I say go for a normal range that isn't simplified (unless you're writing for a young audience, that is).

After all, what would one rather read:

Simple: James got home. He found that dinner was cooked and Peter was gone. It was great to have a roommate that liked cooking, because he was really tired.

Normal: By the time James got home, Peter had gone out but had left him dinner ready. It was great to have a roommate who enjoyed cooking, because he felt exhausted.

Fancy: By the time James reached home, Peter had departed but had left him dinner ready. It was superb to have a roomfellow who relished cooking, because he felt fatigued.

The simple option is what most students of English for foreigners would use, starting from the lower levels. The normal option includes words that are considered more advanced but aren't in the least 'fancy', since you come across it in lots of places. Now, 'fatigued', 'relished', 'reached home'... I have rarely come across those ones in modern novels.

Just the other day I was giving a teenager some advice: she is about to move into more advanced levels of her English studies, but is having trouble with vocabulary and structures. The funny thing is that she can do the exercises with the advanced structures, she just can't use them in her writing and speaking because they don't flow naturally in her mind.

Her favourite method of studying is reading books in the original (meaning, not abridged), which means she has a great grasp of vocabulary and most common structures. The problem is that she has limited herself to reading YA, and while I have nothing against YA, the truth is she isn't being exposed to the more complex (not fancy!) structures she needs to develop her level further.

In conclusion: It is not about purple prose and fancy words/structures vs. simple words/structures. It is certainly not about using 'elegant' and 'sexy' words. It's about using a natural range that isn't stuck in any extreme. Elegance, sexiness and proof of excellent knowledge of a language come with how you use the words, not their rarity.

If you are not confident using English in an advanced (meaning, natural) way, then by all means prefer simple words and structures. But if you feel confident with the language, don't simplify your writing. Just make sure you are not using fancy words that sound less than natural.

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I guarantee you that aiming for "an elaborate style of writing with as many elegant and "sexy" words as possible" will not result in your writing "displaying an excellent knowledge of English" but rather make your work appear clunky and awkward, and look to most readers like you are trying to appear impressive rather than actually being impressive.

Unless you are writing an assignment for an English class, or your limited writing skills make your work hard to read, no-one reading your work cares about your knowledge of English. They will be altogether more interested in the content of your work, and your writing style needs to work to support that goal rather than be an aim in itself. In most circumstances, therefore, you should choose the words that most clearly express your meaning and use those. The most common exception being when writing for a less technical audience where you should avoid words that are unlikely to be familiar to your audience.

This, incidentally, is true whether or not you are a native speaker.

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    I agree; not being a native speaker actually doesn't influence the answer much - the readers won't care, after all. – Liquid Sep 19 '18 at 14:11
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Most native english speakers will probably have a mastery of the english language superior to your own. I'm a non-native english speaker myself and, since I read a lot in english (and somewhat struggle to write in it, too), I can tell.

Just imagine the equivalent in your own native language. In the course of your life, you've been exposed to a great number of words in your mother tongue: most of those have been common-use words, but surely you know a lot of seldomly used words, or phrasal verbs, or sayings, and so on. Even if you wouldn't use those in your everyday language, you will rarely need a dictionary to get the meaning.

For native english speakers, it will be the same. The real question here is:

Should your style be simple, or should it be more elaborate?

In my humble opinion, this is up to you and to your confidence in your use of english. Style also has to do with the kind of story you're telling, so that should be taken into account.

I wouldn't worry too much about english readers having to open a dictionary at every page of your book, unless you are actively searching for the most intricate, old, exotic words intentionally. Don't do that. If it doesn't fit your story, and if you have to bend your mind in attempt to impress some very-literate english reader, chances are that

  1. Your readers will be annoyed, rather than impressed, and/or
  2. Your style will feel clunky or unnatural, and/or
  3. You'll misuse some of those words since you are not familiar with them, too.
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The answer to your question depends on whether you're writing fiction, or non-fiction.

Non-fiction

If you're writing non-fiction, particularly if you're writing an academic text, being understood is the first goal you should strive for. You're presenting complex ideas. Don't make those ideas even harder to understand, don't make your writing hard to follow, by using rare fancy words. (Same goes for overly long sentence structures.) Technical terms relevant to the field are necessary, I'm not talking about those. But using "complicated" words for the sake of using them doesn't make you appear smart. It makes your text less readable. Go for clarity instead. If you can explain your idea in simple words, that makes it easier for everyone, and proves you actually understand what you're talking about. (Also, less students would be inclined to imagine you being introduced to the Spanish Inquisition.)

Fiction

The language you use for fiction would depend on the general style of what you're writing. The first-person narrative of a modern child would differ from that of a Victorian-era gentleman. In third person too, if you're modelling your story after medieval ballads, you'd be using different language than if you're imitating the crisp style of a newspaper. (Those are all examples. The variety of styles you might be choosing from is infinite.) In some situations, fancy words can be out of place, while, as @ChrisSunami points out, simpler words might provide for stronger imagery. In other situations, using more complex language is harder to avoid. In that case, however, a few words won't do the trick either - you'd need to study the overall tone you're going for.


In either case, "a few" fancy words in an otherwise simple text stand out like a sore thumb. It is better to use the same register for all the text. Also, make sure you use fancy words correctly, if you choose to use them. Each word has its shades of meaning. In particular, "fancy" words tend to be more specific than simpler, more common words. For example, 'dirk' is not a fancy word for 'knife', but a specific kind of knife. (Made that mistake, rather hilariously, when I was 12.) It is better to use a simpler word correctly, than to make a mistake with a fancier word.

Language is a toolbox in your hands. The more you expand your language, the more versatile your toolbox becomes. Any time you feel limited by the language, study more, read more, practice more. In the meantime, I'd use the tools I'm comfortable with, rather than those that are kind of a new experience I'm not 100% sure about. One exception: the texts you write to practice and learn the language. In those cases, go ahead and use all those words you're less comfortable with. Then let a native speaker review your text.

  • I often use a thesaurus when I'm unsure how the word goes. That helps me get the feel of it in different contexts with different preposition and so on. Btw, I remember the word "dirk" from the game series Diablo. You mean to say that my overall text should have a fixed amount of fancy words and common words? – SovereignSun Sep 20 '18 at 4:19
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    @SovereignSun "a fixed amount of fancy words and common words" - not at all. As ChrisSunami says, you can have all your text written in nothing but simple words. Or, if writing fiction, you can have one character use a more varied vocabulary than another. It all depends on what you're writing. Also, I would be very careful using a thesaurus. A thesaurus might not tell you that a word is antiquated, or has different meanings in the UK and the USA, or is so uncommon as to sound strange, etc. – Galastel Sep 20 '18 at 9:30
  • For that I first look up the word in the dictionary and then in google books. – SovereignSun Sep 20 '18 at 9:32
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I am a non-native English user too, and my advise is - don't.

If your mastery of a language is below the average, trying to compensate it with using above the average vocabulary is a wrong idea. This is of course about general writing - if you are writing specialized papers, you got to use precise terms, no matter how rare those words are.

Even if a word like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is the best to use in my writing, and I nail it 100%, there are some dead giveaways that show my foreign origin (or, rather, the lack of mastery in English), so I'd rather avoid going above an average vocabulary. This does not mean that I have to make my writing deliberately simplistic. An average vocabulary, on the other hand, should be Ok to use for writer of any level (that's my opinion).

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It is purely a matter of style. If you are comfortable with more complex terms and some of the lesser used idioms, try it. Have someone read it and if you wrote smoothly then it will succeed.

Joseph Conrad was a non native speaker and wrote one of the great pieces of modern English literature.

William Blake chose to use simple words and conveyed complicated ideas, yet preserved the sense of innocence of his poetry.

There are times when the idiomatic is the correct choice, but this will depend on your target audience.

Using rare words is fine if there is a legitimate need for the word. If you have a character from a particular place, his speech will differ from someone from another part of the country. Dialects and idioms are local and will be recognized as such by well read readers.

I have a character in a book I am working on use a local word that means dupe or fool, but neither of those words seemed right in that instance; so I used the idiomatic ‘hornswaggle’. If a reader is uncertain of its meaning having come from a different region, context is there to indicate meaning.

Have a good reason for the terms you choose and the reader will understand as long as the context exists.

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Thinking deeper, speaking in terms of the "trouble" as you said, that/this might be the realm of serious psychological/mental health applications of your question logic. What Discovery Channel's Mayday calls "human factors" can apply to single words alone.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avianca_Flight_52 (from Mayday) is a technically good (emotionally bad) example: "This dire situation was not recognized as an emergency by the controllers because of the failure of the pilots to use the word "emergency"."

"The captain asked the first officer to "tell them we are in [an] emergency."

"The captain once again asked whether the first officer had advised the controller of the fuel emergency, and the first officer replied, "Yes sir. I already advise him"

"...informing him that the flight had "just ah lost two engines[,] and ... we need priority please."

From personal experience, the same applies to the normal (which can still feel foreign and rare) words used to report problems according to the law, where there is an intersection between words that you may not even know, and words that if you do not say, there will be the trouble of self-censoring and/or knowing nothing. To give your question another perspective, is being heard as saying "sexy" may mean "abuse" given such a Mayday equation, and that effect being a native speaker too, often a topic of literacy efforts that is felt impossible to dictate (or even educate) and describe because of the liability just explaining "Sexy"/Abuse, or Priority/Emergy.

Triggers "Priority" and "Emergency" being the examples of simple versus compex words we all can apparently at any age say/omit (because of literacy, social pressure, or otherwise) that can determine if I know what you mean by "trouble".

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    That's ridiculous, mistake "sexy" for "abuse"? Yes, "priority" and "emergency" are very different words. How could someone misuse them? – SovereignSun Sep 23 '18 at 6:11
  • @SovereignSun I could read you for any manner of anger and or sarcasm maybe, however I may try to read such as the only way to talk really good about bad issues. We all can be dumbfounded about smart problems. I appreciated your question did have depth, and did not mean to be mean. Really, it is difficult to factor for how people use words, scary in fact. "Scary to say." is the #CommonExpression I worry and bother about. Just the use of "that" versus "this" can be a normal feeling and still scary for even the best of us —w/ excellent breathing conditions & zero turbulence, we all still "Um". – prosody-Gab Vereable Context Sep 23 '18 at 7:33
  • Context often says it all. That vs This is an issue of rendering something from a certain POV. Same concerns many other words and even prepositions and articles. – SovereignSun Sep 23 '18 at 7:49
  • @SovereignSun Curiosity would lead me to ask if you have an accent? I tried reading for a Russian accent and I can not pick that from a line. ...I speak Broken English, even as an American Born patriot, and when I speak Spanish/French I use single words. I do not even have full English grammar to rely for a ref, so judging Vocabulary (what is nowadays called Keywords, maybe your "rare"... I still say Vocab in my head, even with friendly Googlers repeating kw kw kw kw kw) is my anchor. These kind of expressions, phrases, and words, by importance alone, given "Keyword Weights", lead wearily. – prosody-Gab Vereable Context Sep 23 '18 at 8:20
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    How do I know which one I've got? I do have some kind of it anyway. Probably only a specialist in accents can tell me. – SovereignSun Sep 23 '18 at 8:45
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When in doubt: K.I.S.S.

You received some very good answers already and sage advice, there is not much I can add, but here are my two cents as another non-native user.

In my opinion, writing in a pedantic, flowery, style, using obscure adjectives, is indicative of immaturity, it reeks of school essays and seldom successful attempts to impress the reader.

Some of the best writers in the world use easy language a simpleton could understand. I believe that simple child-like language comes from a total mastery of the language. While it may appear simple, a simple user or a child could never actually write like that, the writer has reached simplicity the other way around. A true wordsmith has nothing to prove anymore and uses the most economical, naturally occurring, vocabulary.

Moreover, even if perfectly used, obscure vocables can interrupt the reading flow as one stumbles upon seldom seen words, even if the reader has no need to go look for a dictionary. In novels, in particular, the aim is for the language used, the verbal medium, to disappear and ensnare the reader into the illusion of reality. That could not happen with "sophisticated" awkward words.

I agree with you that the average native speaker would not understand "precious" rarefied vocabulary. In my opinion, the average American has a vocabulary and educational level similar to a European pre-teen. You would be risking it if going above the middle grader or young adult level of literacy. (to American SE members, I mean no offense, this is just my opinion based on the few years I spent in the US) An iconic example is the American editor´s decision to change the first Harry Potter title from the "Philosopher´s Stone" to the "Sorcerer´s Stone" because it was assumed the readers would not know what alchemy or a philosopher´s stone was and likely even what a philosopher was. Other native English users may be more literate but still, the majority of the population are only high school graduates and likely not very well educated. On the other hand, the average American is not a reader, and most readers are above and beyond the average. So, really it depends on the audience you are targetting, and a clear image of said audience would help you write by mentally discoursing with them.

I think that even in academia or philosophy sophisticated language is a hindrance and an obstacle to clearly enunciating your thoughts, compare for instance the near obsfucation of Kant´s essays versus Plato´s clarity.

Finally, in my opinion, the only channel where one can safely play with recherché vocabulary is in poetry and even then, apportioned as a nebulously ethereal infinitesimal scintilla ("just a bit"... in real language :) ).

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