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Big words or small words - which are better?


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As an editor, one of the things I find myself repeating to non-native writers is that small words are almost always better than big words. Many writers spend ages using a thesaurus to come up with "impressive" words for their work because they think small words make them look less educated or less professional.

Not so!

The most important part of any writing is "the three C's" - writing should be Clear, Concise and Correct. To achieve this, it is almost always better to use simple, common words than big, long, impressive words.

Here's an example in part of a sentence from an article written by someone I used to work with:

"... a more profound moral, physical, and emotional repudiation of economic growth as the supreme grail quest and only indicator of well-being."

What?

In my opinion, it is always better to stick with smaller, common words than to try to be clever and poetic. Nine times out of ten, your reader will appreciate the clarity.

That's my opinion, anyway. What's yours?

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I agree.  It's best to use language that is direct and to the point.  I like your "three Cs"  -- "Clear, Concise and Correct" -- that's exactly what outstanding writing should accomplish. 

Something else that writers do is to overload their writing with too many adjectives and adverbs.  As in this example you cited: 

Here's an example in part of a sentence from an article written by someone I used to work with:

"... a more profound moral, physical, and emotional repudiation of economic growth as the supreme grail quest and only indicator of well-being."

Absolutely.  It's unclear what the writer intends to tell us.  I must say I have never seen "supreme grail quest" used quite that way!  But that's the point I'm making.  With so many words stacked together, it's almost impossible to understand exactly what is taking place.  One is simply left with a collection of words which don't serve to communicate much of anything. 

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It's unclear what the writer intends to tell us.  I must say I have never seen "supreme grail quest" used quite that way!

The entire article is like that. I won't point anyone to it because that would be rude, but it's phenomenally difficult to read because you have to go through each sentence with a dictionary!

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I like the three C's! I also agree that its not about how long the words you use are, it's about getting your point across. Many times in an effort to sound more "educated" or "fluent" people go above and beyond, but by doing this your message has a higher chance of being lost to the person the words are directed towards.

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It really depends on the context and the mood a writer is going for with his work. A lot of great works just wouldn't feel the same if they had relatively "simpler" words used in place of a lot of big ones. In general writing though your 3 Cs seem like a good thing to follow.

Oh and I wouldn't judge whoever wrote that on the basis of one out-of-context sentence but that really didn't make a whole lot of sense.

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I do agree SpiralArchitect. However, I would like to mention that in English, talking about scientific writing, the tendency is still to keep it rather simple. In other languages, German for instance, scientific writers are always trying so hard to make every sentence as complex as possible and they prefer to use the most complicated words (trying hard not to use an easier word for the same thing).

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I agree with you 100%. I am a firm believer that readers like to read as if it was a conversation. If I don't use the word in everyday conversation, then why would I use it in writing.

There are genres, that need those kind of words included, like if the writer is depicting an old Victorian setting, romance, scene, etc.

But for modern readers, they like non-heavy sentences that can be clearly understood.  :wink:

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  • 3 weeks later...

I prefer use smaller words which I consider simple words because I want people to understand me. I sometimes have hard time memorizing big words because I don't often use them or will not use them again. I like to make the conversation easy without throwing in some big words so I have to explain later in the conversation. It is better for me and the listener that way.

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Let the work decide the words you use. There are some articles or stories that will require simple language to achieve the purpose for which it's intended. Other complex topics would require big words to get your message across effectively. An example would be, an essay dealing with Communism would be a lot different from an essay about some other more common topic.

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When writing contents especially online, it's always better to be simple and straightforward. Majority of online readers don't have long attention span, they tend to skim through articles quickly so articles should be easy to read and understand. Complicated words will only make a reader bored. Writing fictional contents however require a certain extent of big and flowery words for descriptive purposes, it's literature so you have to be artistic.

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Couldn't agree with you more.

I am for using small, simple words. What is communication without clarity?

Lack of clarity defeats the very purpose of communication.

Indeed, simplicity  is the ultimate sophistication.

Where meaning is unclear, there's no meaning.

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I like the three C's! I also agree that its not about how long the words you use are, it's about getting your point across. Many times in an effort to sound more "educated" or "fluent" people go above and beyond, but by doing this your message has a higher chance of being lost to the person the words are directed towards.

At the end of reading an article certain things must have been achieved, knowledge and understanding being the main reasons. so i do agree with the small words for the everyday reader but for someone who wants to expand on their vocabulary and education words that are"bigger" are more interested and beneficial

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Yes some people prefer to use big words because it makes them feel smarter, I am not one of them. I believe the words you use when you write should capture the attention of the reader. So then, who are you writing to?. That should be very much considered when choosing words.

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Reading that example made me laugh, I also can't understand what the author is trying to say. So with that said, I also agree that people who use big words are the ones who want to look intelligent or smart, so they chose to use big words, as compared to just using simple, common and easy to understand words, so it makes them look trying hard to look smart, and it backfires on them instead of making the reader think that they're actually smart.

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Even though clear and simple words are preferable but we shouldn't neglect complicated and artistic words altogether or it'll become extinct. As unnecessary as big words might seem, they do have their usefullness in certain writings especially in literary writing. Basically, separate both types with different types of content writing or conversation based on the situation at hand.

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I think it's more a problem of flowery language (IE unnecessary words) rather than big words. Language ultimately is built on convenience in communicating a message, so the more common 'necessary' words are small and concise. If a big word gains common usage it is often abbreviated or replaced in some way with a smaller alternative.

The example quoted in the OP has far too many unnecessary words, they've also gone out of their way to use more obscure synonyms in a sentence that obviously didn't need it. Using a thesaurus to swap in weird words can benefit your writing as long as the rest of the sentence is simple and easy to understand.

Anymore funny examples?

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I don't think a writer should locate every small word in their writing and search for a longer synonym. It complicates the writing and sometimes makes it unintelligible, especially if the synonym they chose has an every so slight difference in meaning. On the other hand, though, I think it is a very good idea to change certain words to something that is more descriptive of the situation, and most of the times this will be a longer, more eloquent word. For example, basic adjectives and verbs can be changed. Fantastic, instead of good. Terrible, instead of bad. Meandered, instead of walked. Basic words such as these are easily altered and they will give the writing much more flair and sophistication.

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For me, using highfalutin words can sometimes be of help especially when you are addressing a crowd of intellectuals. Depending on the types or classes of people that you are speaking, writing to or addressing, you must level yourself with each and everyone of them. When your readers or audience are farmers, you should speak/write in a manner that they would understand preferably in their vernacular language. For professionals, it is good to insert some big words in order for you not to bore your audience. The way you answer you address your audience is relative to their capacity to understand words. That is of course my point of view.

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A lot of people who write believe that the use of big words helps their credibility as a writer. What you need to remember is your words are what will market your books or columns. Simply understand your target audience and what they would prefer and then make a decision on the style of writing you'll adopt. However, if you're writing for the general public, always use simple words so that you do not discourage readership.

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I only would use big or deeper words if there was a need to be more specific, otherwise, I usually just stick with more casual words unless it starts to sound tacky. A good balance of both is often the best for me, and I also dislike it when I see sentences like the example you have provided. I think it comes off as desperate.

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  • 4 months later...

When I was a student, I'd use winding sentences, complicated words and repetition, just to get my papers to the required length. I could've said it clearly in a few sentences, but I don't get to make the rules. :bored: As a result, I somehow learned a lot of words I can hardly use in casual conversation, but I write a lot better now so there's that!  :wink:

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