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What’s with the vocabulary?

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vocabularyDude, take it easy on the vocabulary! Seriously, come on! That is exactly what I feel like saying when I read a good piece of writing made complex for complexity’s sake, writing that screams more of the writer’s proficiency of the language than hooking the reader with its content. It is quite a common notion, especially in the context of English language in India that the more complex the vocabulary used, the more good the writing is and therefore more intelligent the writer is. I beg to differ.

Let’s look at a similar scenario from our regional language. Since I am comfortable with Tamil, I’ll use that for an example. If I write a regular article in Tamil with words from Tamil Seiyul (poem) such as Purananuru and Kalithogai, I am sure to have no readers except from the literary folks whom I might end up offending for my improper use of the language. Why then do we do that to English alone? Just because it is foreign? After decades of using English in our country, after naming it as one of our national languages, why do we still try to overdo its purpose and take pride in it? Unless we are talking about literary writing, complex words are not always relevant. Simple is nice.

Reading and writing need not be for knowledge seeking purposes alone. A voracious reader or writer need not necessarily be an academician. Writing can be used for different purposes. To correspond and communicate. To share or even to simply entertain. Whatever the purpose, it gets achieved only when the reader gets out of it what the writer intended him or her to. If the reader has to stumble upon every alternate word, squeeze his brows in frustration, lose interest ultimately and move on, what is the point of those glorious words picked up from a GRE textbook? I don’t mean to undermine the use of good vocabulary. It is definitely important to make the writing more beautiful, to give it that gloss and shine and make it more enticing. But too much make-up on an already beautiful maid would only make her ghost-like, less admirable and more daunting.

Vocabulary has to be used with good judgment. The words must settle in the sentence comfortably that the reader can understand them contextually. If the reader has to seek the aid of a thesaurus or dictionary for every other word, then it is the reference book that is teaching him or her things, not the writing by itself, thereby not conforming to even the common Indian myth about the pseudo-intelligence from the mastery of the English language. Stuffing and choking the sentences with difficult words just because the writer knows them and is dying to use them kills the joy of reading.

So, what is really important in writing? It’s the content first. What is it that the writer is talking about is the foundation. How he or she writes it only comes next. A high-budget movie with all the technicalities, animations and gimmicks, would still get busted if the storyline is not strong. On the other hand, a simple movie with a strong storyline makes blockbuster hits. We’ve all seen examples, haven’t we? The same goes for writing.

For a long time, I was hesitant to disclose these views of mine. Who am I to tell anyone anything about writing? Just because I blog, it doesn’t mean I can assume a know-it-all aura and start teaching. I knew that and I shut up. But after hearing my views verbally endorsed by a really eminent author on her own in the recent times, I got the courage to get preachy. If anyone questions my authority, I can always point fingers, you see.

I have read a few books in my few years of life, both Indian and foreign. In both the cases, I always find good books are those that have befitting words in their content and engage the reader till the end. Not a book that is assaulted with words. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, anyone? Or more popular example, Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head. These are examples of very simple, very strong and immortal writing. I guess there is a problem with the new trend of writing in young India that calls itself simple but sells crap. We know those and let’s keep them out of this post as well. That trend antagonizes the other side, the book lovers who go about unleashing their anger by spewing out complex words. The battle has been going on for quite some time and I had been a soldier on both the sides, sometime or the other. Why not a middle path? The one that’d work for most of us, if not all. The one that’d hold the attention span of today’s online reader who statistically gives us less than four seconds to interest him or her. Why don’t we write and read because we’d like to do it and not because we want to make a statement or show off? Why don’t we stop enforcing and make it more endearing? Why can’t we keep it simple?

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