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Size doesn't matter: why short words are better than long ones

Posted by Sam Livingstone
Picture of Sam Livingstone
on 1 September 2015
How to write Writing tools Writing copywriter

At Articulate, our copywriters believe that short words rule.

So, why is everyone else obsessed with long words? Simple: they want to appear clever. Sadly, this just doesn’t work. Using long words for the sake of it actually makes you sound like an idiot and nobody likes a show-off.

Thesauruses won’t make you smarter overnight

Take Joey in the US sitcom Friends, for example. When writing a recommendation for Monica and Chandler he over-uses the thesaurus in an attempt to sound ‘clever’.

In reality ‘baby-kangaroo Tribbiani’ creates nonsensical phrases. His sentence ‘they’re warm nice people with big hearts’ warps into ‘they’re humid pre-possessing homo-sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’.

It’s pure gobbledygook because Joey forgets that context is king and packs his text with clever-sounding synonyms.

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Tragically, this kind of word inflation doesn’t just happen in sitcoms. It also happens in press releases, job descriptions and other forms of business writing.

Maximum verbosity engaged

What about literature? Isn’t this proof that ‘better’ writing is formed from bigger words?

No, this is another myth. Take William Wordsworth, one of our most celebrated poets. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated that he wanted to write ‘in a selection of language really used by men’, not purple prose.

You only need to glance at Phillip Larkin’s infamous poem, This be the Verse, to bury the notion that literature needs verbosity. They fuck you up, your long words.

In classical rhetoric, verbosity is actually a negative word, a criticism. Remember this when you think you’re being clever – Virgil, Statius and other past masters, would disapprove of long words for the sake of it.

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Become clever at using words, rather than using ‘clever’ words

The media doesn’t help. Countdown is the chief culprit; long words win. And national treasures like Stephen Fry contribute to the feeling that eloquence springs from the number of letters you can jam into your writing or speech.

They're wrong. This lie is spread by people who equate intellect with long words. Stephen Fry and others use long words because they love them, understand them and use them well. If you’re not Stephen Fry, start with shorter words and work your way up.

It’s far more impressive when Scrabble players make lots of short words using doubles and triples than when they use an occasional long word to show off. Nigel Richards is the best Scrabble player in the world because of his knack for stringing words through letters already on the table.

It’s the same with writing.

‘Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all,’ as Winston Churchill put it.

And he was no slouch with words. Apart from his famous oratory he also had a Nobel Prize for literature.

In short, canny writers create more richly textured copy with short words than a neurotic show-off with a thesaurus. If you want to write like a genius, then put your obese copy on a diet.

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See also: copywriter

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