Short Words, More Word Power

Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit. And if that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless.

See, I was taught to love what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”

These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

When I slipped into the world of the written word as a professional, I discovered that a bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations at all. Rather, it obfuscates it. (Translation: Big words can actually make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)

Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess. It’s a 16-page essay that originally appeared in Your Life magazine in 1938.

Here’s a juicy quote that reveals the core idea:

“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us – from our hearts or guts – not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act. … That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”

Or to say it even more briefly, short words have power. That’s true in all kinds of writing, including sales copy. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”

[Ed. Note: To get more of copywriting expert John Forde’s wisdom and insights into marketing (and much more), sign up for his free e-letter, Copywriter’s Roundtable, at Or send an e-mail to and get a free report about 15 deadly copy mistakes and how to avoid them.]