What's with the big words?

Maximal verbal obfuscation, minimal cerebral penetration.

I have been thinking about the purpose of big words. I notice them more often now. Especially since I started reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser. He argues that most adjectives, all adverbs, and nearly all abstract nouns are useless for non-fiction writing. He advises that you use the active voice and forceful verbs over all else.

A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the readers energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

I use “perpetrated” because it’s the kind of word that passive-voice writers are fond of. They prefer long words of Latin origin to short Anglo-Saxon words—which compounds their trouble and makes their sentences still more glutinous. Short is generally better than long.

I agree with this conclusion. That’s why we consume tweets and Instagram posts more easily than we do editorials and journal articles. Even in the video format, creators who use shorter, simpler sentences tend to outshine their academic counterparts.

Now here’s the funny bit.

Right after that quote above, Zinsser cites Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as an example of economic writing. This speech, he says, totalled 701 words of which 505 have one syllable and 122 had two syllables. On the surface that sounds amazing – such a short presidential address with so few big words! But I decided to take a look at the actual speech and, to be 100 with you, my amazement has receded.

Look at this –

The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.

Of the 32 words here, only three have more than two syllables. Does that mean it is easy to understand? I don’t think so. It’s a compound sentence propping up three different ideas! The Hemingway Editor gives it a Readability score of Grade 15. That means you have to have attended fifteen years of schooling to easily parse this sentence. “Studies have shown the average American reads at a tenth-grade level”, says the help page. And that’s today. Lincoln said these words in 1865.

The lesson to learn from Lincoln ends at preferring short words to long ones. I stretched it to check the readability of such an exemplary text with 90% short words. Turns out big words are bad but short words can also be bad.

Communication has to be “clear, concise and coherent”, I learned from a guest lecturer ten years ago. I haven’t always been able to do it well but it is the definitive go-to principle that I keep in my head every time I write. 1

I consume a lot of media (tweets, videos, articles, books…). I enjoy switching away from the consumer position and instead reviewing from a critical lens: How is the material being presented? What is the choice of words? How does the speaker modulate intonation? Which syllables are stressed? Is there a flow to the argument? Is there another way of saying this? Does this arrive at a meaningful, logical conclusion?

There’s often something new to learn. And even so, it’s a fun little exercise.

But unfortunately (?) I find most content to be of ’low value, high fluff’ variety. And this is despite my subscription filter. If I seek high value content it is often hidden behind the opaqueness of jargon and compound sentences. At the same time, memes are able to communicate complex ideas in an incredibly simple form! But memes mostly present ideas that are meant for a laugh. Sure, you can explain philosophy through memes but it’ll never be as ‘complete’ as a longer text would.

YouTube channels like Crash Course and Great Art Explained have simplifyd academic content quite well. But we need more simplifyd content in this world. One of my life goals is to do just that – make something easier to understand without losing completeness or original complexity of thought.

Why? To create –

Maximal Minimal verbal obfuscation, minimal maximal cerebral penetration.

What do you think? Email / text me.

P.S. The Hemingway Editor thinks this newsletter is suitable for Grade 6. How about that.

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  1. Fun fact: Sometimes I keep this in mind just to do the exact opposite. Oh, the joys of writing for the government. ↩︎

Last modified: Jun 22, 2022