Can a 1,000-word vocabulary make your writing clearer?

Simple is good

Avoiding hype, jargon and unnecessarily long words has been a constant plea on Bad Language. Using overly long words makes you sound less trustworthy and more stupid. Hyped-up marketing waffle means nothing at all.

Just 1,000 words

The Up-Goer Five, built by Theo Sanderson, takes this thinking to another level. It is programmed to recognise the 1000 most common words in the English language and it challenges you to explain a complex idea using just those words. Every time you use a word that is not in that list, it flags it up as not allowed. It is a lot harder than it sounds.

up-goer five


I started off with a concept close to the heart of Bad Language: how to write well.

Good writing is clear, to the point, and does not use long words for no good reason. In order to write well you need to consider the person who is reading your work. How much time do they have? What do they already know? And how would you talk to them if you were talking in a coffee shop? The point is to sound relaxed and like yourself and use words that are used all the time and are easy to understand.

Expressing complex ideas in simple words

So that was not so hard. The idea behind it really isn’t so complex. Then I tried something a little more tricky. What is the patriarchy?

For a long time men controlled the way we lived, worked and formed ideas about things. Part of that control meant they got to decide what it meant to be a man or a woman. This meant you had to act or dress or think the right way or you would not be accepted by everyone else around you. So for women this meant that they were not able to have any say in what made them who they were.

Today although things have changed that mean women can work and have a say in how things are run, thoughts and ideas are still stuck in a made-up way of thinking about what it means to be either a man or a woman. And this means women still have to fight to have the same power and control as men.

This was really hard. And I’m not even sure I express the idea properly even after quite a while searching for simple ways to explain it.

Learning to write simply

This tool might not be the most practical aid for producing good copy, but it is a very helpful exercise in bringing you down off your verbal pedestal when your language is getting a little flowery. It also helps to highlight when a longer or more complex word really is extremely useful and appropriate. We should not be afraid to use long words when they mean exactly what we want to say. Or short ones for that matter.

The English language is vast and full of wondrous words. What Up-Goer Five really shows, I suppose, is that good writing is not about keeping individual words simple, but about breaking ideas down to their simplest parts in order to communicate them effectively.

Sometimes, it’s better to use a single word for that small stick with a black middle that leaves a mark when you rub it on things, even if it isn’t one of the 1000 most common words around.

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8 Responses to Can a 1,000-word vocabulary make your writing clearer?

  1. Jfs says:

    I think I put tools like this in the same category as haiku or drabbles; it’s a fantastic discipline to write within constraints, even if only temporarily.

    But I love the flexibility of English to let myself be constrained all the time 🙂

    • Yes, it’s funny how constraint somehow makes better art. There are a million words in the English language (allegedly) but you only need a few to saying something powerful.

  2. Jenny Delaney says:

    Is it a bit wrong that I think this sounds like a fun game 🙂

  3. Ian Grant says:

    Having something to say is the first thing. To say it simply and clearly is secondary.

  4. Mike Brown says:

    On a related note — I read a grant-writing tip that suggested using the Msft Word Readability stats to ensure the grant description was written at a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of 11, indicating that the word length, sentence length, paragraph length, etc could be understood by someone with an 11th-grade education. Because most grant reviewers are not specialists in your field, then you need to write the grant so that they can understand the project’s basics, implications, and significance.

    So, maybe not writing to a specific vocabulary set but a general reading level, may be another useful exercise to try.


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