Four kinds of words, some good, some not so good

Words can be divided into four kinds, according to a popular business writing blogger.*   Let me paraphrase his four kinds of words:

  • Common words, or everyday words that you can expect your reading audience to know without explanation.
  • Jargon, or words specific to the field you are writing about.  If you are writing about math, for example, you might use “function” and “algorithm,” and expect your audience to understand.  But for new or unusual math words, or for children, you would offer definitions.
  • 50-cent words, usually with many syllables or from another language.  These words are intended to impress people or to act as shibboleths showing that the writer is an insider.  Such words could include “esprit de corps,” “modicum,” and “Neolithic.”
  • Unusual words which hook or delight a reader.  Such words might include “pique” and “hardscrabble,” or for a young child, “triceratops” or “tyrannosaurus.”

How often should you or your students use each type of word?  According to the business blogger,

  • Common words—90 percent of the time
  • Jargon—as needed for your topic, but be sure to define new or rarely heard words
  • 50-cent words—never
  • Unusual words—just a little bit

When teaching writing to children, I find that they stick to the commonest of common words unless they are prodded to try new words..  To expand their vocabularies, I suggest what to them seem like 50-cent words.  If they have heard a word before, they might try it out, but if they haven’t heard it, they prefer to stick to comfortable, overused words.

Children who come from enriched backgrounds have large common word vocabularies.  Children from impoverished backgrounds have small common word vocabularies.  What can seem like a common word to one kindergartener can bewilder another.  It’s important for children’s writing to sound like their own writing, not their teacher’s, so their backgrounds need to be considered if you attempt to stretch their vocabularies with new words.

However, when writing about a particular topic, children need to use the precise vocabulary of that topic.  Words like “pollution” and “predator” should be expected when talking about the environment. Even though these words might seem strange at first, their precision is what makes them useful.  Children need to use the correct names of concepts.

As for unusual words, I encourage children to use one or two to add sparkle to their writing.  Often their “unusual” is my “ordinary,” but if using a particular word delights a child, I encourage it.


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