Short words are (still) best


“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.

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8 Responses to Short words are (still) best

  1. 58% – didn’t know it was that high.

    Solutions has also become one of my pet hate words. Esp. because so many people seem to actually WANT it in their copy. ‘Solutions’ and ‘outcomes’. Repulsive.

    • I know. It’s terrible when clients insist on replacing good copy with really bad, industry cliches. It happens to us all. Sometimes you get to give them some quiet professional advice and try to explain why you did what you did. But in the end they’re the client. It’s one of the tough moments in client relationships. I try to address it by offering free seminars to help clients understand my world and what I’m trying to achieve. That helps.


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