Oct 30, 2009

Lacunae: The Right Word for the Audience

by Sarah Albrecht

“The researcher said he needed to check for lacunae in the data,” I told my thirteen-year-old son who will discuss just about anything with me. “I had no idea what ‘lacunae’ meant, so I had to look it up.”

I told him the results of my search: lacunae comes from Latin for gap or ditch and is also the root for lake and lagoon. Interesting. But, as I continued the conversation, “Why couldn’t the guy just say ‘gap’?” (?!!)

“I know what you mean,” my son said. “My science teacher does the same thing. He always says, ‘y sub two over y sub one over x sub two over x sub one’ for the slope formula. Why can’t he just say rise over run?”

I think the answer to our lamentations is in audience. The lacunae guy was writing for academia; he needed to sound academic. The science teacher was teaching a class with varying levels of understanding; he needed to be specific. Even though simplicity is usually the rule of thumb, sometimes audience dictates otherwise.

Unlike in my son’s science class, in writing the audience isn’t there—so in that sense the author is dealing in an abstraction. Finding the right word for the audience can be hard without the instant feedback of word or expression.

I like my Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner & Tayopa Mogilner. It’s a thesaurus of sorts, but for each word, it lists the grade in which most children become familiar with the word. What a great resource to help children’s writers find the right word for the audience—and it’s fun to peruse “just because,” too.

Now I can hope my word choice has been appropriate for the ANWA audience (yes, I see the be verbs, but they’re going to have to stay for now)—I wouldn’t want any lacunae in consistency.


  1. Sarah that has always been a two-edged sword in my family too. My parents deliberately used bigger words and made me look them up which in their mind made me smarter. But all my writing instructors have always maintained write on an eight-grade level. Yet, the books I read are certainly not written on that level. On the other hand, using big words annoys most of us. On the other hand...as you can tell I can't decide the best route to go.

  2. Thanks Sarah. I shall now go inscribe.

  3. I've struggled with this question myself...in part because some of my children have been very advanced in their reading and it has always been a struggle to find age-appropriate (content-wise) books that would still challenge their reading abilities. Personally, I think there is a market for children's books that use a more advanced vocabulary. But how do you get them out there?


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