“Language is the dress of thought.” – Samuel Johnson
We got a nice letter from a bright man the other day that I wanted to share with you. It’s about our Word to the Wise column. Bill Lampton, Ph.D., (author of The Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication, Change Your Life!) writes:
“Although I believe that the vocabulary-building word definitions you provide daily can help people with their reading, I urge Early to Rise editors to point out that you are not encouraging people to use these obscure words in their speaking – either informal conversations or professional presentations – or writing.”
In the communication seminars I direct internationally, I remind participants of James Michener’s advice in his autobiography, The World Is My Home. Michener said the writer’s challenge is not to use big words, but to accomplish extraordinary things through ordinary words.”
I read an article Bill wrote on the topic, and I enjoyed it. (You can find it at businessknowhow.com/growth/words.htm.)It began with a personal anecdote. While taking a walk, he came upon a sign that said:
Experimental Turf Area
Please Avoid Pedestrian Traffic on Turf
What is wrong with the simple and straightforward “Keep Off the Grass,” Bill wanted to know? And he’s right. Using multi-syllabic words just because they are available is unwise. More often than not, it will get you into trouble.
Bill notes that in The World Is My Home, James Michener said that he followed “the pattern of Ernest Hemingway, who achieved a striking style with short, familiar words.”
I like Hemingway too. He may even be the most influential prose stylist of the 20th century.
But there are other styles that I like almost as well. Think of the elevated beauty of Thomas Jefferson’s prose, the dense complexity of Faulkner, Joyce, or, for a contemporary example, Cormack McCarthy.
When I teach copywriting to beginners, I stress the importance of working with a smaller vocabulary. But I dispense with that sort of advice when I speak to experienced copywriters who understand what good writing is.
When I talk to editors about writing well, I tell them “Good writing is good thinking expressed cleanly.”
And I mean it. But good writing can, and should, be more than clean. It should be exact. And powerful. And suggestive.
And sometimes the simple, one- or two-syllable, words can’t do that. Sometimes the right word is “taciturn” or “desultory” or “recalcitrant.”
That’s why we include them in Early to Rise. Because we believe these are words that can, if used wisely, make your writing and speaking stronger and brighter.
It’s not enough to simply recognize these good, rich words. Writers – if they want to be great writers – need to use them. And speech givers, too – they need to be able to say them at the right time.
See how some of our most beloved authors (though admittedly in a time when the prose style was more complex than in the post-Hemmingway era) sprinkled their prose with so-called “big” words:
- Mark Twain, writing in The Atlantic: “He took a great liking to this Rev. Mr. Peters, and talked with him a great deal: told him yarns, gave him toothsome scraps of personal history, and wove a glittering streak of profanity through his garrulous fabric that was refreshing to a spirit weary of the dull neutralities of undecorated speech.”
- John Stuart Mill in his famous essay “On Liberty”: “Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject.”
- George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss: “He was often observed peeping through the bars of a gate and making minatory gestures with his small forefinger while he scolded the sheep with an inarticulate burr, intended to strike terror into their astonished minds.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson in The Master of Ballantrae: “You would naturally not think so flat a rogue could cozen you. But have a care! These half idiots have a sort of cunning, as the skunk has its stench.”
ETR readers should feel assured that Judith Strauss, ETR’s senior editor (and my personal editor for 20 years), selects only the sort of words that we actually use in ETR and that our readers might actually use in their writing or speaking … now and then.
Bill Lampton is right in saying that in most cases the simplest word is the best – but he’s wrong to offer, as he does in his article, a substitute list for dumbing down diction:
Some examples from his list:
- Instead of fortuitous, use lucky.
- Instead of prevarication, use lie.
- Instead of optimal, use ideal.
- Instead of feasible, use possible.
- Instead of peruse, use read.
- Instead of interrogate, use question.
- Instead of altercation, use argument.
- Instead of surrogate, use substitute.
Here are my suggestions:
1. Expand your vocabulary with words that you might one day use.
2. Trust ETR to provide such words.
3. Learn these words both passively (so you recognize them when you read them or hear them) and actively (so you can use them when you want to).
4. And, finally, use big words when they do a better job than their little counterparts.
Of course, just because you learn these wonderful words doesn’t mean you’ll ever have a chance to use them. As Bill points out, Somerset Maugham started a notebook when he decided to become a writer, jotting down words with nice sounds … big, impressive words. Yet in reviewing his notebook years later, Maugham realized he had never used a single word from it.
[Ed. Note: Statistics prove that people with bigger vocabularies earn more money. Not to mention that a broad vocabulary can help you read and speak better. With ETR’s Vocabulary Builder program, you can improve your mind as well as the way others perceive you. This new vocabulary-building program is in the works right now. To get on our exclusive “hotlist” and be one of the first to find out all the details of this brand-new program, please register here: There’s absolutely no obligation and we’ll let you know as soon as it is available. Pick up a copy of this brand-new program, and you’ll be sounding – and feeling – more intelligent in no time!] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]