Writers on Words

20 Favorite Quotations About Words

writers on words
American novelist James Salter, interviewed by Edward Hirsch in The Paris Review (Summer, 1993). (Getty Images)

Speaking for all writers, the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett once said, "Words are all we have." It's no surprise, then, that over the centuries writers have often reflected on the nature and value of words—their hazards and pleasures, limitations and possibilities. Here are 20 of those reflections.

  • Enjoying Words
    Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker. If there isn't that pleasure for a writer, maybe he ought to be a philosopher.
    (Evelyn Waugh, The New York Times, November 19, 1950)
  • Creating Words
    Give the people a new word and they think they have a new fact.
    (Willa Cather, On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, 1953)
  • Living With Words
    Words are not as satisfactory as we should like them to be, but, like our neighbors, we have got to live with them and must make the best and not the worst.
    (Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, edited by Henry Festing Jones, 1912)
  • Influencing Words
    I fell in love—that is the only expression I can think of—at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. . . . There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable.
    (Dylan Thomas, "Notes on the Art of Poetry," 1951)
  • Slipping on Words
    No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
    (Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907)
  • Picturing Words
    Here, therefore, is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter; . . . for words are but the images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture.
    (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)
  • Mastering Words
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
    (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 1865)
  • Striking Words
    Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
    (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953)
  • Judging Words
    No word can be judged as to whether it is good or bad, correct or incorrect, beautiful or ugly, or anything else that matters to a writer, in isolation.
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936)
  • Destroying With Words
    And a word carries far—very far—deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.
    (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900)
  • Giving Words
    Words aren't only bombs and bullets—no, they're little gifts, containing meanings.
    (Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, 1969)
  • Building With Words
    As a rhetorician, I loved only words: I would raise up cathedrals of words beneath the blue gaze of the word sky. I would build for thousands of years.
    (Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words, 1964)
  • Conceiving Words
    Words are tools which automatically carve concepts out of experience. The faculty of recognizing objects as members of a class provides the potential basis for the concept: the use of words at once actualizes the potentiality.
    (Julian S. Huxley, "The Uniqueness of Man," 1937)
  • Producing Words
    But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
    Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
    That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
    (Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1819-1824)
  • Choosing Words
    The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning.
    (Mark Twain, letter to George Bainton, October 15, 1888)
  • Manipulating Words
    The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.
    (Philip K. Dick, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," 1986)
  • Masking Words
    Words are really a mask. They rarely express the true meaning; in fact they tend to hide it.
    (Hermann Hesse, quoted by Miguel Serrano, 1966)
  • Combining Words
    Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!
    (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Notebooks, May 18, 1848)
  • Lasting Words
    What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same.
    (Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from the Spanish by W.S. Merwin)
  • Final Words
    Polonious: What do you read, my lord?
    Hamlet: Words, words, words.
    (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1600)

Next: Writers on Writing: Further Reflections on Words

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Nordquist, Richard. "Writers on Words." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/writers-on-words-1689250. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Writers on Words. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/writers-on-words-1689250 Nordquist, Richard. "Writers on Words." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/writers-on-words-1689250 (accessed June 3, 2023).