Most of the words we use every day are little ones. A syllable or two, sometimes three. But for some reason, many folks confuse big words with erudition, aka, smarts. But that’s just not the case. Winston Churchill, who knew a bit about the power of words, once said, “short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.” By old words he meant the simple ones of old English origin. Mom and Dad. Love and hate. Good and bad. Bread and milk. Fight and flee. Come and go. Rise and shine. You get the idea.
There’s simply nothing better than tough old English words, the ones free of French, Latin, or Spanish influences. I’m not against foreign tongues influencing ours. As our tongue grew, it was happy to grab words from other tribes. So we think nothing of saying avant-garde, carte blanche, cliché, déjà vu, diva, emoji, fiasco, macho, motto, pasta, patio, pizza, solo, typhoon, and tsunami, to name but a few. It’s a long list. Generally, we don’t care where words come from. We care about getting our points across. Or we should. And when we do grab words from other tongues, they’re often small ones.
Big words have their place of course. And when no other word but a big one will do, go for it. But for any other reason is foolish. It’s easy to fall into the trap of big words. It’s an easy way to show off. And it’s often used to bully or shame readers for being no nothings. But know somethings — Churchill and Hemingway, for example — know better. Stop obfuscating. Start simple. Limit the big words. Small words kick ass.
©2021 John Hofmeister.
Want a simple way to make your writing more vigorous, readable, and actionable?
Get rid of all those nouns with verbs buried inside them. Just googling “smothered verbs” will give you lots of examples of how and why this writing habit gets in the way of sturdy English prose. You can easily break this habit by turning nouns like discussion, information, reduction, and conclusion into action verbs — discuss, inform, reduce, and conclude. Your prose will get sharper. Become more readable. Less likely to induce boredom, eye rolls, and yeah whatever.
And take notice of that suffix in all these nouns — -ion. If you skim your copy and find them, you’re probably smothering verbs. Bureaucracies — whether public or private — are fond of smothered verbs because active verbs force writers to clarify who’s doing what to whom. Saying something like “there will be a reduction in our salesforce” sounds less threatening than “we will be reducing our salesforce.” People get fired. Nobody seems to be doing the firing.
Smothered verbs invariably invite passive verb constructions, where stuff happens seemingly by magic, the magic being that it absolves doers of doing anything. It’s the sort of opacity week-kneed lawyers, administrators, politicians, and bureaucrats strive for. Stop giving them quarter. Free a verb today!
©2021 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.