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Does word length matter?
Weâ€™re often advised to avoid long words in our writing when shorter words will do. Like many simple style tips, itâ€™s useful but it shouldnâ€™t be obeyed uncritically. Stan Carey takes a closer look.
Writing guides generally agree that short words are preferable. Many take their cue from traditional authorities such as the Fowler brothers, who on page one of their influential The Kingâ€™s English (1906) told readers: â€˜Prefer the short word to the long.â€™
The preference dates back centuries. During the shift to modern English, our vocabulary swelled tremendously through borrowings from Latin, Greek, French and other languages. This sparked a vogue for inkhorn terms â€“ so named because they required a lot of dipping in the inkhorn or inkpot â€“ and a counter-fashion for opposing these words and preserving the supposed plain purity of the Anglo-Saxon lexicon. Many such anglicised imports failed to catch on (accersite, illecebrous, obtestate), but others were embraced and remain with us today (commemorate, dexterity, susceptible).
Don't try to mystify
Though inkhorn terms can be wonderfully expressive, writers often used them to impress or mystify their readers. This tendency still exists: writers are occasionally suspicious of ordinary, familiar terms and replace them with ornate alternatives â€“ sometimes in Latin. But using unnecessarily fancy phrasing is a reliable way to alienate readers. It makes prose puffed-up and heavy, so that reading it becomes a chore instead of a pleasure.
That said, long and obscure words donâ€™t deserve to be blacklisted outright. Sesquipedalianism (or sesquipedality: literally, the use of words 1.5 feet long) is not intrinsically wrong, but make sure you indulge in it with restraint and an awareness of readersâ€™ needs and expectations. Otherwise it can overshadow the ideas you're trying to communicate.
When deciding on a word, ask yourself: is its meaning clear and precise? Is it consistent with the style of language around it? Maybe itâ€™s too formal; maybe it's not formal enough. Does it stand out? If so, does it do so acceptably, awkwardly, or just pretentiously? Even casual readers notice when a writer is trying too hard.
Finding the right word
Instead of the short word, weâ€™re sometimes told to choose the right word. But the right word isn't always obvious, and there are degrees of rightness. As the Austrian writer Karl Kraus said, â€˜The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.â€™ Language tends to approximate our thoughts rather than match them exactly, so choosing the best word can be a deft and delicate business.
The connection between a word and its referent is slippery and complex. Many concepts connect to a constellation of terms, each with its own history, idiosyncrasies and connotations. Be careful of words youâ€™re not very familiar with â€“ itâ€™s a bad idea to grab a thesaurus and adopt a near-synonym just because it sounds a bit fancier or less predictable. That way lie potential confusion and absurdity.
Context is key. An unknown or half-known word might make enough sense in the context for readers to get the gist and continue. They can always double-check the meaning later, and they might even enjoy looking it up. But as a technique this requires skill and subtlety from the writer, and the more you do it the more likely you are to test readersâ€™ patience. Donâ€™t let the language interfere with the message.
Put yourself in the audience
Reading a line aloud to yourself is a good way to assess it. You donâ€™t have to be theatrical; just whispering or mumbling it can help you get a sense of its rhythm and balance. Reading it quickly and silently in your head does little but reinforce what you think you said, which isn't necessarily what readers hear. Asking a colleague is also worthwhile: their independent perspective is invaluable, since they will hear your prose in ways you can't.
It's easy to be too casual or overbearing with words, and this can devalue communication. â€˜Everything should be made as simple as possible,â€™ Albert Einstein said, â€˜but not simpler.â€™ Length of words is a factor, but by no means is it the primary one. More important is that we use the most appropriate and effective words, whatever their length, and that we do so in good faith. Remember to put readers first.
Long words may be beautiful, evocative and forceful; in the right place at the right time they can delight our ears, tickle our brains and stir our hearts. They can also annoy and exhaust us. A rich vocabulary can nag readers with its own grandiosity, masking an inability or unwillingness to engage in straightforward expression. Or it can be worn lightly and used with finesse and sensitivity. You, as writer, get to choose.
Stan Carey is a writer and editor, and he blogs at Sentence first.