On Style, and the GRE

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 10, 2010 -- 9:57 p.m.

Blaarg. I've started studying for the GRE and man, it is rough. This is the first time I've ever studied for a standardized test. I usually score in the 89-93 percentile without trying, but it's been awhile since school and so I've decided to actually buckle down and try to do well. Plus, my college GPA is B+ territory, because I'm a lazy student (I learn, I just don't care enough to go to the trouble of proving to teachers that I've learned), so I could use a little boost when it comes to applying to grad school and internships.

Anyway, I thought the vocab part would be easy but I've been going through an old Kaplan study guide and discovering there are tons of words I am apparently expected to know but don't. Granted, I know most of them, but still, I wonder, why? What's the purpose of having a vocabulary so complex no one will understand you? I've never heard anyone use the word 'prolix' in my life. Or 'cavil.' Or 'orotund.' These are apparently important words, though, because my entire future might be hanging on them.

My journalism teachers taught as to write everything we could targeted at about a fourth-grade reading level. Lowest common denomination. All of my teachers acted as if it was a tragedy that we had to talk down to people, but as I advanced in my career I realized that there was a good reason for that. The ideas are more important than the words we use to tell them, and the ideas we present should be as clear to as many people as possible. That's one of the reasons I'm not so anti-cliche as many writers. If someone writes, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," we all know what that means, right? It conveys the idea. Cliches are about the only time you can be sure that the reader and the author are sharing the exact same picture in their mind. Although, of course a clever writer would change the cliche so it still communicates the same meaning, but with a hint of world-building and humor. IE, "People who live in glass bungalows shouldn't throw lead-plated ostriches." Or something. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are masters of this.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is a high vocabulary is not an end-goal in and of itself. I think it's only useful in as far as it's...well, useful. Always go for clear communication of a new idea, instead of trying to use words that make you sound intelligent. If a reader stops and pulls out a dictionary, that's a bad sign.

Then again, I love reading Orson Scott Card because he uses big words like "corpuscular." And that's a cool word worth knowing. Some other good words I've discovered through the GRE learning process--jocose , turgid, peregrination, philogyny, mordant, moribund, volant and mendacious.

I also learned I've been using the word 'querulous' wrong all my life. I always thought it was a synonym for tremulous. Whoops. Hope that word isn't in any of the drafts I sent agents...


  1. GMAT said...

    Nice blog! I like your writing way. I'm doing practice GRE here: masteryourgre.com . I hope it's useful for GRE test takers.

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