I recently spent a few days in Duluth, a place where some people claim Mark Twain once said that he experienced "the coldest winter" in his life: "July in Duluth." What a thing to say about a lovely city by a sweet-water sea.
I was presenting a writing seminar for a group of supervisors and managers. While in town, I happened to find myself aboard a sailboat in a regatta with a six-person crew and a captain who really knew his stuff.
As at most of my seminars, we worked on eliminating common errors such as the word choice error in "She didn't intend to flaunt the rules." We also practiced applying certain stylistic techniques that increase clarity and emphasis, techniques such as taking advantage of the natural stress that occurs at the end of sentences. For example, we revised the sentence "We must do something now about the problems we are experiencing" to "We must do something about these problems now."
We also discussed the importance of developing a broad vocabulary. First I asked, "How many words are there in the English language?" We settled on about half a million, not counting technical language. Then I asked them how many words they knew. People who don't read much typically know 10,000 to 20,000 words; those who read more tend to know 20,000 to 40,000 words or more.
How many words do you know? In case you haven't counted the words in your vocabulary lately, the number is easy to estimate. If you read only short articles and the sports pages, your vocabulary is probably in the lower range. If you read at least one book per month, your vocabulary is probably in the higher range.
If you want to know the exact number, buy a good unabridged dictionary, open it to the letter A and circle the words you know. Keep going until you get through Z. Then count how many words you've circled.
Here's why vocabulary matters. When you speak or write, people form an opinion of your intelligence, education and competence. Compare the impressions created by these sentences:
• "Your conclusion is not good."
• "Your conclusion is unwarranted."
After our discussion and exercises, some of the seminar participants committed themselves to learning one new word a week.
For a view of Duluth different from Twain's, try Barton Sutter's "Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map." Both writers are clever and both will make you laugh, but where Twain is uncharitable, Sutter is kind. Sutter likes "the very smell of the place, a bittersweet blend of industrial pollution and evergreens."
As I left town, the mercury was pushing 50 degrees, and people were peeling off their parkas. Who needs April in Paris when you can have June or July in Duluth?