They say a painting paints a thousand words, but could those same thousand words paint an equally vivid picture? There are many more words in the English language than there are colours of paint, and just like paint, it's the way we mix and blend the words that make the difference. Just how many words are there in the English language? It's so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. For instance, is the word 'dog' one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately also (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog? However there are 171,476 words listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, words that are in current use, and believe it or not there are another 47,156 obsolete words currently listed.
It is not humanly possible for one person to have a vocabulary of all hundred and seventy-one thousand words, so most people have a personal vocabulary of between 12,000 and 20,000 words, varying with the level of education achieved. Some say college/university graduates use upwards of 20-25,000 words. Of course professional writers probably have a vocabulary a little larger, maybe up to 30,000 words. Everyone has their favourite set of words, words that better convey the various tones and colours in our literary picture, than others. Of course most writers use a Thesaurus, a book that gives a list of alternatives for each word, depending upon use or context, and most word- processors these days, have a Thesaurus built in. I have long held that it is not the words that we use, but the way in which we use them that builds the picture, what use is it using a word if only a few people know what it means.
Of course it all depends upon the reason we are writing, is it a letter, or an e-mail, maybe a report, or a short story or book. The style of our writing is very dependent upon piece we are writing, letters are often informal, if we are writing to a friend, as are e-mails, but we employ a much more formal style for business letters. Reports are often full of detail but stripped to the bones of style, direct and to the point. Magazine articles are different again, and these can be open to differing 'treatments' that help the article entertain as well as inform. Novels, poetry and short stories are where the writer's art comes into play, where the words are really the palate for the writer’s pen. This is the palate that converts the pictures in the mind of the writer, into the pictures on the pages of the manuscript.
All of the above styles, and more, should have one thing in common, a plan. The plan is the wire frame around which the words are constructed and fitted into place, without a plan the piece of writing can wander endlessly without a destination in view. The plan lends structure and a logical sequence to our writing, the piece has a plan, each chapter, paragraph and sentence has to have a structure and a plan. Every sentence should be able to stand-alone and make sense; the indefinite subject should never appear in a sentence. Each paragraph should have its own subject, and each chapter should convey a piece of the story, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
In this present age we seem to be loosing the ability to write, many young people find it impossible to construct a simple sentence, let alone write an intelligible piece of twenty-thousand words. Even university students often struggle to write good English, I have seen some that were unintelligible and I refused to accept them. The greatest threat to our language, English, French, Spanish or what ever language you speak, is the dreaded SMS, the 'Text'. The character constraints imposed by the mobile networks have forced the next generation to take short-cuts, now we see these abbreviations turning up in examination papers. Some time ago someone sent me the Lord’s Prayer, supposedly written in tent-speak:
dad@hvn, ur spshl.
we want wot u want&
urth2b like hvn.
giv us food&4giv r sins
lyk we 4giv uvaz.
don't test us!
save us!bcos we kno ur boss,
ur tuf&ur cool 4 eva! ok?
Can you imagine the English speaking world speaking or writing like this at some time in the future?
How can we right this situation? Simply by being good role-models and maintaining a high standard when we write, by questioning the errors we see when we see them, and by not accepting sloppy, lazy, grammar. It is surely up to those who write to challenge bad writing, whether that is in a school paper or in a professionally written novel (bad English in novels occurs more frequently than we would imagine). Let us go forward with a mission, to stamp out the bad language we read everywhere, and be proud of our native tongue.
Dr. Derek P. Blake