While there is no means of finding an exact count, it has been estimated that there are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language. The largest dictionary has over 400,000 entries, but should all of these entries be classified as words? Many words are considered obsolete or archaic. There are words like ‘hotdog’ that are combinations of two words, where the combined words have a different meaning than either of the elemental words. It is thought that about half the words in the English language are nouns and about 15% are verbs. This leaves plenty of space for adjectives and adverbs. But how many words does the average person know? It has been estimated that the vocabulary of the average English-speaking college graduate is 20,000 to 25,000 words. Professor David Crystal (linguist, author, academic) has estimated that a more accurate estimate is 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive words. Estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary range from 18,000 to 25,000, depending on what one considers a word.
No matter what word count one adopts, it is fair to say that the writer has plenty of ammunition from which to choose. Why is it then that we encounter so many cliches in writing? How about:
- He swept her off her feet
- It was love at first sight
- She quickly recovered herself
- The dinner was well served and very tasty
- There was a silver moon in the sky
- He played a good game of tennis
While I can’t say that I am immune to the disease of cliches, I try hard to work around the traps that they represent. Why traps? They are traps because they are easy to fall into, and they add no value for the reader: they are vague, uninformative, and any emotive element they may have had at one time is long since washed out.
On my writing table beside me is my Oxford Thesaurus of English, and it rescues me whenever a cliche threatens, or I feel: that’s not the right word; it’s close, but it’s not right. To avoid cliche, one has to be more specific. Rather than say, “He swept her off her feet”, it would be more informative to say something like: “She was captivated by his languorous, baritone voice.” ‘Beautiful’ is a word that I try not to use: it is so overused that it is hopelessly vague. Depending on the situation in which ‘beautiful’ would otherwise be used, I might use ‘glamourous’ or ‘stunning’ or ‘beguiling’.
My thesaurus has a useful wordfinder, I can find onomatopoetic words like ‘judder’ (a rapid, forceful vibration) and ‘whoosh’ (the rushing sound of fast movement). One can find foreign words and phrases like ‘al dente’ when one is writing about pasta, or ‘faux pas’ (socially embarrassing blunder), for which the equivalent English phrase is awkward. And then, there’s the main section of the wordfinder where one can find a particular colour, or bird, or name for a district of a city, or card game, or . . .
One should try to choose words that convey specific meaning, are evocative, without being contrived, and without (hopefully) leaving the reader to think “I wonder what that word means”.