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.

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  • mark howell  On September 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Mark Twain: ” Eschew obfuscation”

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