Big goldfish in a small bowl and a small goldfish in a large bowl

Short words are (still) best

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

'Short words are best and old words when short are best of all,' said Winston Churchill. He won a Nobel prize for literature and his oratory saved the world in 1940, so he knew what he was talking about.

Daniel Oppenheimer showed that using longer words makes you look stupid (even if your intention was to look clever).

Conciseness is also a virtue. Jakob Neilsen found that cutting the word count in half made online text 58% more readable.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Easier to read. Shorter words reduce the risk that the reader’s eyes will skip back and re-read something. This in turn increases comprehension.
  • More readers. If you write at a level that can be understood by school leavers, you don’t exclude university graduates but if you write for graduates you exclude some school leavers.
  • Save time. Nobody has enough time, so if you can tell your story in a more concise way, you show respect for your readers.
  • Clarity. Sometimes the right word is a long one because it is precise and specific. But more often, long words make the meaning less clear (remember Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister).
  • You have to think. It takes a bit more work to write with short words and this extra effort automatically produces better copy.
  • They might make people fall in love with you. Psychologist James Pennebaker found that using short, basic words when speed dating was more effective.

So here’s a list of common long words from the world of IT marketing and some better, shorter alternatives (obviously the exact right word depends on context).

  • Going forward – IN FUTURE
  • Granularity – DETAILS
  • Drill down - EXAMINE
  • Stakeholders – CUSTOMERS, PARTNERS
  • Touch base – CONTACT, TALK, CALL
  • Offline – LATER, IN PERSON
  • Incentivise – REWARD
  • Pre-plan – PLAN
  • Action (as a verb) – DO
  • Deliverables – MILESTONES, WORK
  • Low-hanging fruit – EASIEST TASKS
  • End-to-end – JOINED-UP, INTEGRATED
  • Traction – SUCCESS
  • Solutions – PRODUCTS, SERVICES (I *hate* the word solutions)
  • Best of breed – BEST

The Plain English campaign has a massively useful A-Z of alternative words.

There are a few short words you might want to avoid in your professional copywriting, though:



Our blog used to be called ‘Bad Language’, but we never quite reached those heights! 

With all that said, there’s nothing wrong with revelling in some gloriously long words every now and again. Here are some of our favourites as a little bonus, as long as you promise not to use them in your copy!

  • Antidisestablishmentarianism I was taught at school that this was the longest word we have, but it would appear from what is to come next that someone was telling me porkie-pies.
  • Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis Apparently this continues to appear in several dictionaries, even though it was primarily coined just to serve as the language's longest word. Supposedly it means 'a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine sand and ash dust'.
  • Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonn-bronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawn-skawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk A lot of people are fans of James Joyce and I will agree that attempting to write down the sound of the thunderclap that occurred at the fall of Adam and Eve is a difficult challenge, but honestly, this is just ridiculous.
  • Honorificabilitudinitatibus The state of being able to achieve honours and, apparently, the longest word that Shakespeare ever used. (It was in Love's Labour's Lost.)
  • Floccinaucinihilipilification I must say, I am rather in the habit of estimating all these very long words to be a little worthless at this point.

And if this post has left you feeling a little flustered, then you may just be suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. 

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