Monthly Archives: July 2012

Short shrift for long words

Stan Carey writes about the tendency some writers have to reach for long words:

using unnecessarily fancy phrasing is a reliable way to alienate readers. It makes prose puffed-up and heavy, so that reading it becomes a chore instead of a pleasure.

That said, long and obscure words don’t deserve to be blacklisted outright. Sesquipedalianism (or sesquipedality: literally, the use of words 1.5 feet long) is not intrinsically wrong, but make sure you indulge in it with restraint and an awareness of readers’ needs and expectations. Otherwise it can overshadow the ideas you’re trying to communicate.

It’s good advice, and it’s a good pretext for me to post my collection of (not entirely kind) quotes on the problems with using long and fancy words. I haven’t kept track of where I found them, but I know a few are via Bryan Garner.

“Those who run to long words are mainly the unskilful and tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, and bulk with force.” HW Fowler, 1926

“It is a habit, amounting almost to mania, among inexperienced and ignorant writers to shun simple words. They rack their brains and wear out their dictionaries searching for high-sounding words and phrases to express ideas that can be conveyed in simple terms.” Edward Frank Allen, 1938

“We are at the mercy of anyone who thinks the sense of a word is discoverable by inspection, and whose misuse consequently liberates an echoing error in the minds of his peers. To put it differently, the danger to English today is not from bad grammar, dialect, vulgar forms, or native crudity, but from misused ornaments three syllables long. The enemy is not illiteracy but incomplete literacy – and since this implies pretension it justifies reproof.” Jacques Barzun, 1951

“Most obscurity, I suspect, come not so much from incompetence as from ambition – the ambition to be admired for depth of sense, or pomp of sound, or wealth of ornament.” FL Lucas, 1962

“For most people… in most situations, in the writing of everyday serious expository prose, it is the Stuffy voice that gets in the way. The reason it gets in the way, I submit, is that the writer is scared. If this is an age of anxiety, one way we react to our anxiety is to withdraw into omniscient and multisyllabic detachment where nobody can get us” Walker Gibson, 1966

“Would a self-respecting mathematician say 12/48 instead of 1/4 just to sound more erudite? Certainly not. Likewise, a writer or speaker generally should not say obtund when the verbs dull and blunt come more readily to mind.” Bryan A Garner, 2009

And, for a bit of contrast:

“Clarity merely means getting a thought across. It doesn’t always mean short words or few words. It means being understood. It is true that brevity makes easier reading and that short words and sentences promote easy travel through your piece. But a remorseless brevity is characteristic, say, of a gas bill. That is hardly exciting reading.” David Woodbury, 1952

Finally, the best aphorism I can manage on the subject myself is this:

Don’t try to impress readers by putting on a special display of syllables. They’re not here to watch a parade. They just want to know stuff.

The data is in; the news is good

Is ‘data’ singular or plural? In academic (particularly scientific) writing, it’s standard to see ‘these data are’. But otherwise, it’s increasingly common to see ‘this data is’. The question is whether we treat ‘data’ as meaning ‘distinct pieces of information’ or just ‘information’ (a grammatically singular mass noun).

Simon Rogers has a nice summary of the debate.

The academic usage follows tradition – and the word’s Latin origin, because of course ‘data’ is the Latin plural of ‘datum’. Case closed?

No: many linguists now believe that English is not Latin.

English has a lot of words taken directly from other languages, but that doesn’t mean that those words, as English words, need to follow the conventions of the original language. We lifted ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘dachshund’ from German, but we don’t give them the initial capitals that German nouns get.

For ‘data’, I think the best analogy is ‘news’. I watched the BBC’s fine adaptation of Henry IV Part 1 last night, and my ears pricked up when Jeremy Irons (in the title role) asked:

But wherefore do I tell these news to thee?

It turns out that when ‘news’ was first recorded, in the late 14th century, it was a plural – meaning ‘new things’. Over time, it came to be treated as singular, although as late as the 19th century there were still a few occurrences of ‘these news’. But plural ‘news’ sounds utterly alien to modern ears.

To most non-academics, plural ‘data’ isn’t there yet, but it does sound a bit odd and stuffy. It’s on its way out; in many areas of English, it’s already left.

So judge your audience: if writing in the kind of niche where plural ‘data’ remains the norm, you’ll probably do best to match their style. But otherwise, more of your readers will find ‘these data are’ peculiarly technical than will find ‘this data is’ depressingly illiterate.