Thursday, April 17, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Vocabulary

This week's Booking Through Thursday relates to vocabulary:

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

When I was younger and more enthusiastic about scholarly pursuits, I was more likely than I am now to immediately stop and look it up.

(Back then, that meant going to the dictionary or the family encyclopedia rather than "googling" it. It's not that I'm "old"-- I'm not even thirty, yet-- but rather it's an indication of how drastically our world has changed in the last twenty years. Several years ago, some of the eighth graders I was working with had no idea how to use an encyclopedia! A few seemed confused by even the simple process of alphabetization. Of course, how much of that was due to a change in technology rather than individual ignorance is up for debate. . .)

These days, whether or not I stop to look up something (or on a very rare occasion, write it down and look it up later) depends on a variety of factors, including the following:
  • Whether or not I can get the gist of the meaning from context clues. If I'm completely stumped, I'm less likely to ignore it and continue reading.
  • How "into" the story I am. The more engaging the story, the less willing I am to pause.
  • How often the word or phrase occurs. If it keeps cropping up, I'm more likely to stop and research it. (Of course, I'm also less likely to want to continue reading the book at all, if the author repeatedly uses the same exact word or phrase. That's one of my pet peeves. You're an author; invest in a thesaurus, for goodness' sake!)
  • How personally interesting I find the word/phrase. If it "sounds good" to me, I'm more likely to take the time to look into it.
I suppose stopping and looking things up is almost the only way we improve our vocabularies, once we leave the classroom. Obviously it's good for us to continue to learn, but I also feel that an author who continually forces his/her readers to stop and reach for the dictionary (or the keyboard) is running a certain risk. Every distraction takes away from the story, I think. Besides, people don't like to be "talked down to". If I feel that the author is more interested in flaunting how many thirteen-letter words he knows than in weaving a good tale, I'm not impressed.