Have you ever used a word for years — like, maybe during your thesis defense or in a high-profile report for work — then realized one day that you had it totally wrong? Those big words you thought were making you look so erudite were, in fact, working against you. Turns out, coif is not the same as coiffure, and you never even realized it.
No one is immune from this, neither journalists nor poets, essayists nor novelists. The problem often stems from our natural inclination as writers to grab hold of an exciting new word and just run with it. Not only do we end up using big words just plain wrong, our enthusiasm leads to overuse as well.
By slowing down just a little bit, recognizing common pitfalls, and inserting some deliberate practice into your vocabulary usage, you can turn this trend around.
6 Big Word Sins You Can Learn to Avoid
We love those flashy mots, but in the pursuit of better craft, we often make our writing worse. Here are five common slipups writers make with big words:
Sin 1: Confusing Similar Words
You’ve probably come across the idea that only the first and last letters of a word are really important, while those between can be jumbled without losing meaning. This idea seems to contain the seeds of truth, which is bad for us writers who don’t parse vocab carefully enough.
At first glance, enervate and energize may look and sound the same, and seem to mean the same thing. Same with meretricious and meritorious. Unfortunately, these word pairs are opposites. To enervate is to drain energy; to energize is to add it. Meretricious means cheap or tawdry; meritorious means worthy or deserving of praise.
If you’re not careful to examine all of a word, you may end up using it wrong. Once you misapply it a few times, it gets cemented in your brain and will be hard to change. No Bueno.
Sin 2: Assuming You Know What Words Mean From Context
As writers, we’re used to absorbing vocabulary from what we read. That’s great, but only if you monitor the process. Otherwise, you can easily become confused. Take the above example of coif and coiffure. To coif is a verb; a coiffure is a hairstyle. You do the first; you have the second.
Luxuriant and luxurious are also frequently confused. Luxuriant doesn’t mean plush; it means lots of it. You have luxuriant hair; you get luxurious haircuts at expensive salons. If you’re not sure, follow my mom’s oft-repeated advice: Look it up.
Sin 3: Using the Word Multiple Times in Close Proximity
This … annoys me … so much. If you use a distinctive word too many times, I promise you readers will notice.
I’ll give you an example. Of late, fantasy authors have fallen in luuuuurve with the word “eldritch,” meaning bizarre or sinister. Now, this is a great word, but it’s not good enough to justify using more than once in a novel. There are other words for “weird and sinister,” starting with either “weird” or “sinister.” Just sayin’.
This can occur with phrases too. I love the Throne of Glass series, but my pet peeve is Sarah J. Maas’ use of “killing fields.” Yes, it’s a cool, if dark, term. But it’s so distinctive that at ten uses per novel, each new reference begins to grate. No matter how excited you are, keep your shiny new word to one instance.
Sin 4: Using Too Many DIFFERENT Words in Close Proximity
Like the above advice, readers notice when your prose or copy is suddenly crammed with four-syllable words. Keeping the big guys to a minimum is a good way to make those you do use stand out, so stick with one or two per page, at a maximum.
If it’s a word most people don’t know (eyeballing you, “eldritch”), give it even more space. Otherwise your readers will find your writing taxing, and they will get tired of it. You’re not James Joyce. Sorry.
Sin 5: Integrating More Than One Word into Your Vocab at a Time
I’m stoked you like the great authors. I do too. But while reading classic lit is a great way to expand our vocab, it’s also a great way to cram our brains full of words with which we’re only half conversant … and biff it in that thesis defense.
When you read a new word, dog-ear that page or write it down. Don’t just absorb it and conclude you “know” what it means. Then look words up carefully and practice (below) to be sure you know how to use them. If you come across many new words in a short amount of time, write them down in a document and reference it when you have some free writing time.
Sin 6: Using the Word in Dialogue When It’s Out of Character
The occasional professor or lair-bound scientist can fairly employ flowery phrasing, but chances are good your medieval heroines and subversive Nazi soldiers don’t have overflowing vocabularies. You can use that fancy five-syllable exclamation, but they probably won’t. Of course, you know your characters better than anyone else, but for the most part, you should keep their language simpler than your prose.
Choose Your Words
Phew, that was a lot of don’ts.
Luckily there is also a DO! Do use deliberate practice to improve your command of new words you stumble across. If you haven’t stumbled in a while, feel free to head to your favorite writing blog or dictionary, both of which commonly suggest new words to use. Stuck for ideas? Check out some of our favorite big words here.
When you encounter a new word you love the sound of, look it up and absorb its meaning. To deepen your understanding, check out a few examples of it in use — dictionary and encyclopedia sites are a handy way to do this, as they often offer sample sentences.
Big and uncommon words can be the perfect things to make your prose sizzle. By avoiding these egregious sins, you'll ensure each one packs a punch. Don't stop using your fancy vocabulary! Just make sure it's working for you, not against you.
What's your favorite uncommon word to use in your writing? What's a word you often see overused or misused? Let us know in the comments.
Post your practice in the comments section so we can all see your work and boost our vocabulary skills along with you! And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!