Should you write with a long word when a good short word is available?

Research shows you should choose the short word.

Nine years ago, a teacher at Stanford University had 71 students read several writing samples and then rank them. Some of the samples were “doctored” to replace simple nouns, verbs and adjectives with more complex words. The result: students rated the authors of the complex vocabulary samples as stupid.

happy pencilConcludes the author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “Write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

Stan Berry, coauthor of five books on writing, agrees. He says readers will stop reading when they are confused. To keep your writing clear, he advises using short, simple words.

Robert Frost, maybe the most renowned US poet, advised to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin for both simplicity and clarity. If you read his poems, you’ll rarely find long words or words of Latin origin. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, Frost uses only one three-syllable word, “promises.” The rest are mostly one-syllable words, and all are every-day words a child could understand.

So how do you select a good word? Ask yourself:

  • Is the word’s meaning clear and specific? If so, use it. If not, keep searching.
  • Does that word fit with the other words you are using?  Does it sound like it belongs, like it is the most natural way to say what you want to say?   If it sounds wrong (too formal, too intellectual, or too childish), don’t use it. Choose another.
  • Does that word stand out? Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes a highfalutin word can sound awkward amid simpler words. Keep searching.
  • Lastly, if you’re not sure about a word, and you keep going back to it, replace it.

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