Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sunday Musings: May 11 2014

Hey there, Muse Readers and all Musers alike.

Your rambling ChrisChat is here again, hoping everyone is having a fantastic Mother's Day...being one, celebrating one, remembering one. I would share what my own have done, but I'm writing this Saturday evening and I'm not allowed downstairs at the moment. However, I do have my Kernals popcorn early gift.

When my daughter was born there were so many things I didn't know. So many milestones we eagerly watched her reach...and yes, sometimes wondering how she matched up in general with others in her age range. One was talking. She took her time on that one. She would mime everything. A friend...a seasoned mom...reminded me that while I was waiting for my daughter to start talking, once she did I would wonder when she might shush.   LOL.

This memory came back to me just now as I'm writing and pulling our musers' musings together about vocabulary. When you think about it, we're responsible from day one to grow our children's vocabulary. How do you grow/strengthen your vocabulary? How important is individual vocabulary for fictional characters?

Let's get Musing...

I remember being twelve or so and reading Damon Runyion, O'Henry, and a couple of other authors whose names escape me -- and needing to look up about every other word. Now  *that* was a terrific vocabulary builder. And at the time, I thought my vocabulary was pretty good.

Then in my early twenties I started doing crossword puzzles -- another great vocabulary builder. Learning French and speaking and reading French also built up my English vocabulary.

Words fascinate me. Rhymes fascinate me. I recall Readers Digest having a vocabulary builder feature.

Now I play this game called Wordament where you try to make as many words from this grid as fast as you can. No one can get them all -- the thing is timed, and there are too many possibilities. But after each two-minute round, they list the words, including 'obscure' ones. Boy, there are some weirdies -- but it's a great way to grow one's vocabulary.

As to how important word choice is for characters -- for me, it's one of the key components of voice. Does my character call his father Dad, Daddy, Pop, Papa, the Old Man, Father, or something else?

Really interesting question. My take is that now-a-days schools emphasize language  a great deal less than they did when I was growing up. And still, my father had a far wider appreciation of and knowledge of English than most of my English teachers did.

A pocket dictionary next to my bed is one way I build my vocabulary. It makes it super easy to look up words I don't know when I'm reading and don't want to get up, because otherwise, I'll just try to remember the words I don't know, and will most likely forget them. I also like word games, like Scrabble, Bananagrams (this one is really addictive!), Word Thief, and PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick). They don't teach you knew words, but you have to think up ones that fit in the game, which is a good way to exercise your vocabulary.

When I was in grade 6, our teacher would teach us a new word every day, one that is pretty common but that grade 6 students wouldn't have heard before. I recall having learned "plateau" and "obscure" from this. It's too bad that most teachers don't do this, especially not in high school.

As for characters, vocabulary is the main way that they can be distinguished. When you have characters speaking back and forth, if they speak in very distinctive ways, you seldom need dialogue tags.

I grow my vocabulary by my reading.  Not only do I look up words I don't recognize, but I see different usages for familiar words.

My characters do have individual speech traits.  Their conversation reflects the fact that most of them have had considerable education augmented by private reading and research.  Certain phrases reflect different planet origins or occupations.


I find myself looking up words in the thesaurus to find new ways of saying things (and to learn new words.)

A friend introduced me to the app "7 Little Words". It give you a definition and the number of letters in the word, then you use letter tiles from the bottom to spell out the word. I have to say, I've learned several new words this way!

I think the best way to increase one's vocabulary at any age is by reading or being read to. When I read I usually use my ereader and on it is a dictionary. When I don't understand the meaning of a word, I click on the word and receive the full definition. I also use a thesaurus quite often.

Individual vocabulary is important for characters in a novel so that they have a distinct dialogue. You don't want everyone to sound exactly the same, only to be differentiated by tags. The vocabulary should be age appropriate. A teenager might have different vocabulary than an adult. There are many other differences in vocabulary: ethnicity, vocational, educational, regional, to name a few.


Increase vocabulary? Read widely. All sorts of genres, fiction, non- fiction, newspapers, etc. the vocabulary list in Readers Digest which I assume still exists and doing really challenging crossword puzzles like the Sunday New York Times.

My vocabulary first grew when I read the St James Bible, some of the classics and poetry as well as lots of children’s fiction.

At an early age, I developed a love of reading. When I was thirteen I told a teacher that I had read Tess of The D’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy and was accused of lying. I didn’t understand everything in the novel but the language and vocabulary captured me.

My vocabulary grows through reading fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and journals, as well as watching television and films.

Like all historical novelists I have to avoid anachronisms and pay careful attention to dialogue. I tend to limit upper class characters to one or two contractions such as don’t or won’t and allow other characters to use them. If I use dialect I choose a few words to enhance the character’s speech. I also use slang sparingly and find my dictionary of slang and unusual phrases very useful.

One other thing I like to do is use a few carefully chosen period words such as sopha instead of sofa – hopefully the reader won’t think I’ve made spelling mistakes,

DAWN KNOX, author

Strangely, learning foreign languages has helped widen my English vocabulary. I learned French, Latin and German at school and later, I took up Spanish. Many English words have their roots in Latin, so learning that language definitely expanded my knowledge of English and often I can guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word if it is derived from Latin. Additionally, translating from a foreign language can often introduce me to synonyms with which I am unfamiliar. So although it seems counter-intuitive to improve English by learning a foreign language, I believe it has helped me.

When writing 'Daffodil and the Thin Place', I had to be aware of the way in which country people from the nineteenth century might have spoken, ensuring the voices of the Victorian characters and that of modern-day Daffodil are quite different.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

1 comment:

anne stenhouse said...

Reading seems to be the favourite vocabulary enhancer and I wouldn't argue with that. We play a lot of word games like Scrabble and Boggle in the family. It helps the young to learn and the oldies to remember. Anne Stenhouse