The Case Against Big Words

Written by

Benji Englander

Senior Director

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Thanks to the rapid growth of sites where anyone can publish their writing for the world to see, more words than ever are being drafted — yet those words have never meant less. Not because there are too many, but because they are often too big.

From the front page of the New York Times to the endless scroll of social media and anywhere else words are put to page or screen, writers are trying too hard to sound smart, often writing over the heads of readers. Sure, there are places where using a long word may make perfect sense, but abusing obscure words results in text that is hard to absorb. When writing, clarity is a virtue.

Complex writing is often seen as brainy, so writers assume that using big words will make them appear clever. But in fact, a 2005 study found the inverse to be true; if readers are unable to discern your message, it does not matter how fancy your diction. As Mark Twain put it, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

The two most recent tenants of the White House took Twain’s counsel to heart.  What they grasped – by design or not – is how prudent it is to talk like the people you are trying to sway. While in office, Donald Trump was often chided for talking at a grade school level, but using simple words was vital to his success with the white working-class in swing states. Clear, vivid slogans like “Build the wall” told voters exactly what he stood for and fueled emotion. Likewise, Joe Biden tends to avoid flowery words, often asking aides to “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me” in an effort to avoid elitist phrases. Twitter users may joke about Biden’s endless use of “folks” and “c’mon man,” but those sayings are central to his blue-collar appeal.

But just as big does not equal better, short does not mean surly. You can be concise without being curt; brief but not brusque. You can write clear prose with short words, and it’s likely the reader won’t even notice.

How do I know? Because up to this point I haven’t used a word longer than seven letters. While that is an arbitrary – but on brand for my firm – cutoff, it shows that writers need not be beholden to blue-chip words. There are times when it is necessary to pull out the thesaurus and add some rhetorical flourish – but doing so solely for pride’s sake does not serve the reader or the writer well.

In his seminal essay “Politics and The English Language,” George Orwell criticized dressing up simple statements with pretentious vocabulary, resulting in “an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.” Instead of being direct with readers, writers sometimes use an “inflated style” that obfuscates their intended meaning. Orwell set a standard to help achieve a better result: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

The same applies in our industry. Communications – nor public relations – is neither a Scrabble contest nor a crossword puzzle.

But it is a rhetorical battle where persuasion is predicated upon relating to the audience. As scholar Kenneth Burke wrote in his book A Rhetoric of Motives, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” That means using words the audience can identify with and easily understand. If you don’t communicate in the language of your audience, how can they believe that you share their values, their dreams or their worries? Finding common ground starts with using common words.

That’s something the ancient Greeks understood and advised, even at a time when political speech was more concerned with prophecy than punditry. To paraphrase Aristotle: it is easy to praise Athens among Athenians. And the surest way to convey authenticity and make people believe that you too are an Athenian (or Chicagoan or teenager or soccer mom) is to sound like one by using short, familiar words.

It was literally all Greek to Aristotle, but by following his and Orwell’s and Twain’s advice, political and public relations messaging won’t be to future audiences.