Vocabulary loss and the narrowing of understanding

My blog posts get a “D” for readability as graded by this web site, because my sentences are too long and the vocabulary I use is too advanced. Turns out I am writing at a college level, and that is, according to this article, a cause for alarm. According to the site, I’m limiting my readership.

I ran my blog posts through this analysis after ending up on an article about how the most successful writers–by successful they mean getting on a best-seller list–write for an audience reading at an elementary or middle school level. The author claims that Cormac McCarthy–Cormac McCarthy!–writes at an 8th grade level. If you’ve read McCarthy–a great favorite of mine–you’ll know that he demands a lot from his readers. He writes long, complex sentences, employing odd structures, repetitions, sentence fragments, and a strange, almost Biblical language. He uses a rarefied vocabulary, pushing words to the limits of their sense. I don’t think I’d’ve had an easy time reading him in 8th grade. I didn’t believe this result, so I grabbed this passage from Blood Meridian I had laying around and ran it through the same test.

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are ever given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

Have you ever heard the word “endarkenment” before? Me neither. Looks invented. Far from being at an 8th grade level, the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level analysis put Blood Meridian–at least this passage–at grade level 14.6, requiring around 2.5 years of college to be easily understood. Here are the scores:

 

I felt vindicated. Would you rather write like the article was suggesting? In order to “succeed” should we dumb down our blog posts? We should not.

I had been raised with the idea that having an extensive vocabulary meant expanding your understanding of yourself, other people and the world, an idea similar to this exhortation from Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, which I read in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason:

“Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Exhibit B, from economist, libertarian and autodidact Henry Hazlitt, in Thinking as a Science (via Jyri Engestrom):

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

The desperate state of public discourse today is partly due to the lack of words, the poverty of expression, the limited vocabulary that keeps us from understanding and communicating with one another.

 

3 thoughts on “Vocabulary loss and the narrowing of understanding

  1. Thank you for standing up for what is important.

    A large vocabulary is absolutely key to growing the consciousness of our time, any argument to the contrary is usually baseless.

    Either way, we cannot really reach everyone on the planet no matter what vocab we use, it depends on multiple factors.

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