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I was writing the other day and I used the word "ubiquitous".

While I don't think "ubiquitous" is the most egregious example of "Using Big Words To Sound Intelligent", and would be perfectly acceptable in most novels, it's just, my novel's demographic would be young teenagers, and I definitely did not know what ubiquitous meant when I was a young teenager.

Personally, when I come across an unknown word in a book, I have to take a minute to research what that word means, taking me away from the book.

On the other hand though, this could be seen as a teaching moment where I can teach young readers the meaning of new words

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    How young is your young audience? – hszmv Oct 7 at 13:07
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    @BruceWayne As a kid I found that extremely condescending (although I didn't know the word 'condescending' at the time), and it's actually why I stopped reading those books. It felt like I was being talked down to every time a mildly difficult word came up, and if a word came up that I didn't know, I could just use a dictionary. – Carl Kevinson Oct 7 at 20:18
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    I agree completely with @CarlKevinson. I learned most of my vocabulary by reading and trying to get meanings from context--if I couldn't figure it out and it was actually a word that mattered I'd ask or look it up. I hated simplified language--it was so demeaning. – Bill K Oct 7 at 20:48
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    @CarlKevinson and BruceWayne, those respective perspectives seem like they would be good as answers rather than comments on the question. – V2Blast Oct 8 at 6:53
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    If you're concerned about a big word, use it redundantly. E.g. "The name was ubiquitous. It was everywhere!". Some kids won't care and will ignore it and use the second sentence; some will realize that the second sentence defines the first; and some will look it up to confirm this. It will work fine for all three kinds of readers. (I learned "ubiquitous" as a teenager reading Philip K. Dick's novel Ubiq.) – Ray Butterworth Oct 8 at 16:13

12 Answers 12

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I think this is a really interesting question - because if we avoid using advanced vocabulary with children, then when are they supposed to learn it?

I think the answer is that it's a matter of quantity and proportion so the reader doesn't lose their flow or end up missing something important if they just keep reading, and also of giving the reader the chance to guess the meaning from context, so they have the opportunity to learn the word without having to look it up.

Context

I remember reading a book when I was a child that introduced the word unanimous, though it did it in a very overt way, where the character was told the meaning of it, then used it to their great pride later in the story. There may have been places where they used it wrong to comedy effect, as well. I did not know the meaning of the word before, and I've never forgot it since.

Obviously that's a bit heavy handed for too many words, but you can often make the meaning clear through context, e.g.

"Three cowries?" she cried. "There's no way it's worth that much!"

Most people will understand that in this context 'cowries' means some form of currency.

If you can try to do this with advanced vocabulary in your writing for young people, there's a good chance you will be doing a great service to help them increase their vocabulary range.

Quantity / Proportion

However, even if you just drop in a handful of 'difficult' words throughout the novel without giving any hints, I don't think it would cause any great concern to children, who, in my experience, have a great skill in filtering out things they don't understand right now and carrying on with their day.

The problem will only come if there are so many words they don't know that they end up distanced, disengaged and bored.

Readability formulas

In case you haven't come across them, I thought I'd mention that there are quite a few estalished readability formulas, where you can analyse your text for generally accepted readability levels for different ages.

Here is one, though if other people have links to better ones, they would be very welcome:

https://www.webfx.com/tools/read-able/

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    +1. Being able to infer meaning from context is key. Obviously, readers can look up the word, but it's better if they don't have to. (The opposite is also true: try to avoid using "big" words in sentences that are central to the story, where misunderstanding would let the reader hanging.) – Llewellyn Oct 7 at 16:27
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    I'd add that OP should use "big" words only when they are necessary, when the specific word is expressing the subject better than any other, more common, synonym – Velimir Tchatchevsky Oct 8 at 5:20
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    When I read this answer, I thought of Are You Being Served?, and I am unanimous in that. – Acccumulation Oct 8 at 15:28
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    I agree with this in principle. It's less about the number of "big" words, but the density of language that children may be unfamiliar with. I think of it exactly the same as made up words in fantasy. It's fine to have made up currencies, occupations and creatures as on their own you can kind of follow from the context, but if you overload the reader with too many new terms they're supposed to understand in a short space, you risk taking the person out of the experience and reading it can quickly feel like "work". – DoctorPenguin Oct 10 at 10:04
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The easiest way to do this is have a character use it, and another character (like yourself, not knowing the word at that age) ask what it means, or look it up, or otherwise figure out what it means.

You can even use this as a moment of conflict, or humor.

"It's ubiquitous," Angela said.

Kevin frowned. "What does that mean?"

"It means it's everywhere."

"Then what's wrong with saying everywhere?"

"It doesn't have a Q in it, does it?" Angela said, as if this was too obvious to need to be said.

EDIT: @TheNovelFactory remarks: This is okay for one word, but the book will start to sound a bit strange if you do it multiple times...

Correct. You shouldn't tell the same joke twice. But the dynamic between Angela and Kevin in this example can be sustained and grown: Angela likes big words, Kevin doesn't -- at first.

Make it a rivalry, like a sibling competition. A short list: Kevin tries to stump her with a big word and fails. Then succeeds, but she is delighted. Then guesses a meaning wrong but sticks by his guess, exasperating her. Then guesses a meaning right, and she is impressed. Beats her to the punch in using a big word correctly, and she laughs.

I can even key a plot point off this rivalry: Angela uses an obscure word as a code only Kevin will get. she shouts it across a field knowing the enemy will hear it. She screams "onomatopoeia, Kevin! onomatopoeia!" What she is really doing is reminding Kevin of when he tried to stump her, and what they were talking about then, because it is crucial to her saving him. Only Kevin can figure this out, so it makes no difference if she shouts it or if the villain knows the definition.

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    Very Terry Pratchett. :) There's actually a similar gag in Only you can save Mankind, where the games shop owner says "You kids don't know the meaning of the word 'perseverence'." Best friend: "What does 'perseverence mean'?" Johnny: "It's like persistently trying." Best friend: "Well I persistently tried all last night and I didn't get anywhere." – Graham Oct 8 at 14:14
  • This is okay for one word, but the book will start to sound a bit strange if you do it multiple times... – TheNovelFactory Oct 10 at 10:14
  • @TheNovelFactory Addressed by edit in the answer. – Amadeus Oct 10 at 10:58
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I don't have any writing experience, but I have extensive reading experience as a child 🙂, and I have a 6 year old who loves reading more than chocolate.

Don't TRY to be wordy, but:

Don't dumb it down. Don't explain.

If the word fits the flow of the story, include it. Any kid who loves reading also loves words, and they can infer an astonishing amount from context.

From my own POV some of my most well loved books were the ones where I didn't understand everything at the time; but they always conjured an atmosphere. Then on re-reading and re-reading I'd get more and more and the story would take on further meaning. There are still words I, at 45, "know" the meaning of from childhood but in a very atmospheric and non-definable sense.

My little girl loves learning big words for things. She is very into the word "perplexed" at the moment, and "miniscule" was another fave. Her school has a "word of the week" too, and she was very into "magnificent" particularly. I have started reading her Calvin and Hobbes and she loves that - she also loves space, so the C&H comic about the Universe being "incomprehensibly vast" ticked a lot of boxes.

On the other hand, a lot of C&H strips are just a bit TOO scattered with adult words and concepts for her to follow at all - so, moderation for your audience is definitely required to a certain extent.

TLDR; Enthusiastic readers are enthusiastic about individual words. If the long word fits perfectly then include it; if on reading back it's just there for show, don't.

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You can always put doubtful words in a glossary - a mini dictionary at the end of your book with definitions.

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    The question doesn't ask about doubtful words but about long words. A glossary that simply replicates a dictionary is surely an insult to the intelligence of the reader - of whatever age. – Chenmunka Oct 7 at 17:27
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    @Chenmunka: "Big words" is in quotations, implying it's not about the length, but the complexity. And the question further iterates with descriptions like "unknown". A glossary that prevents me from having to go find a dictionary is handy. Whether it's a good thing or not I can't say. I certainly used the glossary in The Silmarillion on numerous occasions despite an internet connection 10 feet away while I read the book. (That glossary is full of stuff you can't find in a dictionary, so it's not exactly the same.) – MichaelS Oct 8 at 1:53
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    @Chenmunka Additionally adding a glossary to a childrens book allows you to use a definition that is understandable to your audience which may not understand the dictionary definition. – linksassin Oct 8 at 2:39
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    Hi Embillie, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center to learn about the site. This is a good first answer but you could improve it by adding additional details and expanding on why this is a good idea. Thanks for contributing and happy writing! – linksassin Oct 8 at 2:40
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One approach to this I encountered in the novels "A Series of Unforunate Events" by Lemony Snicket (which were definitely intended mainly for a teenage audience) is to use big words as an example to TEACH them.

For example, the second-to-last book is called "The Penultimate Peril". In the beginning of the book, the author (who is himself a character who narrates the story) explains what the word "penultimate" means.

This was sort of a trope that would reappear in the series, but there could other ways to explain what the words means without taking someone out of the story

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! Amusingly enough, someone actually commented on the question to note that they found this approach condescending when they read the series as a child. This is still a good answer, though. – F1Krazy Oct 9 at 15:21
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    As someone who read A Series of Unfortunate Events as a teenager, I really enjoyed Snicket's asides, even when I already knew the definition of the word. Generally the definitions or examples he used were humorous, so it didn't come across as a vocabulary lecture. – Ectropy Oct 9 at 15:47
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My wife is a children’s librarian, working in a primary school. Her rule of thumb for fiction is a challenging book for children should have between 1 and 3 words per page where the reader is unsure of the meaning. And more is too difficult; fewer presents little challenge and learning.

So there should be some words which the target (child) reader needs to research.

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    This. It's not specific to children. We enjoy and grow the most at the edge of our existing knowledge. Where we still stand on solid ground, but circumstances force us to make one small step forward. – Tom Oct 10 at 15:25
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There's a fine line to be drawn between educating your readers with words that may be unfamiliar and putting them off if you use too many of them.

Consider too how your readers are consuming your content. In a physical book, I'll either infer meaning of a word I don't know from context or ignore it. On a tablet, I'll usually use its ability to look up a definition for me.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! +1 for the point about reading on tablets, that's a good point that I don't believe anyone else has mentioned. I for one find myself highlighting unfamiliar words or terms in Google Chrome and clicking "Search Google for..." all the time. – F1Krazy Oct 10 at 14:46
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Don't use a big word when a singularly unloquacious and diminutive linguistic expression will satisfactorily accomplish the contemporary necessity.

  • "Don't use a big word when a small word will do"? I'm guessing you worded it like that to demonstrate what happens when you overuse them? – F1Krazy Oct 10 at 14:25
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    Affirmative, unequivocally. – blcamp Oct 10 at 14:29
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Klippy, your intuition is correct.

Your audience comes first. It’s the reason why you write the book. It doesn’t matter who else reads it, its only important that it pleases your audience. A pleased audience then tells others about your book via word of mouth (i.e. those outside of your audience). Your audience grows and you earn authorship recognition.

It may be a great learning opportunity to learn a new 25 cent word, but that such writing belongs to a textbook author whose target audience are students, not a fiction writer whose audience seeks a moment of time where the your reader escapes reality in your story world.

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I would say the rule for clarity and conciseness, is if there is a word that isn’t so verbose, use it. If you are just trying to show off your ten dollar vocabulary to the peanut gallery, you are in the wrong theatre most teenagers in 11th grade have the reading comprehension of an 8th grader. I like the idea of the one person of adding it in as a gag and having the characters explain what the situation is though that would be hilarious.

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Yes. But also, it depends on how young are your audiences. Search on appropriate words for the younger ones to understand.

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So keep in mind that much of the English Language Literature on the market (especially modern written novels) is written at an 8th grade (US) reading level, which corresponds to about 13-14 years old. Most English courses beyond 8th grade will read some selections of English Language Classical Literature that may be centuries old and use archaic word usage and meaning that is no longer relevant (Shakespeare is quite popular as the Bard is known for clever puns that are funny if you know the slang of his time... most of which are playing off of references to genitalia. I also recall reading "Bartleby the Scrivner" by Herman Melville (more difficult than Shakespeare) and the "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" and "Beowulf" (mercifully not in the original old English, which is so different from the modern language that it requires a translator) and "The Tyger" by William Blake, which has some rhyming pairs that only rhyme if you use different pronunciations then the modern sound of the word (for example, there is a part in the poem where "Eye" is rhymed with "Symmetry" which did rhyme at the time Blake originally wrote the poem, but doesn't today. English is weird).

Using big word in works meant for children isn't uncommon, and in fact, many a Disney film (especially in the animated cannon) used some advanced words for a kids movie (my middle school vocabulary textbook actually made an effort to look at famous pop culture kids films for words to use in each chapter). Check some Disney films of old, and even those of today and there will be a a word or two that kids may not hear every day, but will understand with age. It's actually why adults still will watch the films as it's fun seeing the stuff they missed. Just some examples, but the Latin Chanting in "Hunchback of Notre Dame" is actually pretty important and requires not only an understanding of translation, but it's place in the Catholic Church's mass and sacraments, specifically, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and depicts one of the aspects of the Sacrament that you don't see often on TV (namely, the confession booth is notably absent but the communal aspect of the rite is depicted in part (typically, tv shows the reverse)... and the reason for this is rather significant in understanding the Villain. A more recent example, Zootopia, makes a pretty blatant reference to "Breaking Bad" which no child will understand, and Frozen Opens with a depiction of Ice Harvesting, which was last a thing when my Grandfather was a boy.

There's also the general rule that children's literature is allowed to get away with more then what would be in the movies or tv because the depiction of violence and mature situations is all within one's own imagination rather than on a screen and thus the kids will "see" what they are comfortable with imagining.

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