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Vocabulary: The Case for Simplicity over Variety

January 18, 2013

Grade-school teachers often assess students’ writing on the breadth  of their vocabulary, rather than on how they utilize the vocabulary they know.

Vocabulary is a skill well worth teaching, especially in English because we have an enormous array or words carrying similar meanings. An English thesaurus can seem cavernous, constantly taking you on new routes to discovering words you never knew existed.

Yet, obsessing over vocabulary can make us forget that language is an art form. Art can be beautiful without flourishes. You don’t need an immense variety of words to write a beautiful sentence. Prose with the simplest vocabulary often makes the deepest impact.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

(courtesy of Library of Congress)

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his The Prophets is an impressive master of simple vocabulary, particularly in his verbs:

“What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.”

Notice that he repeats two incredibly simple verbs: to see and to know. They form the core of these sentences and Heschel builds the rest of the phrases on top of them, allowing the reader to focus on the connection between sight and knowledge.

In truth, Heschel might have refined his point further by delving into different types of sight and knowledge. The concepts of myopia and intuition seem particularly relevant to his argument. But such complicated vocabulary would distract readers from the depth of his point, leaving them confused and searching for the core elements of the sentences.

My point: Don’t throw the thesaurus away, but be careful not to disregard the basics.

In recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, learn more about his philosophical and activist ally, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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From → Writing Style

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