Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Short Words

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how short words are more potent than long words.

Here's an exercise I often give writing students: write a sentence using as many long words as possible. When their pens stop and their bent heads lift, I say: now continue the thought of the first with a sentence using as many short words as possible. The kids come up with a nutty variety of sentences, but over the years we've discovered together that the long-short combination has a uniform effect, best illustrated by quoting one dramatic example that got a big laugh the night the student read it aloud:

The splendiferous Italianate ballroom was extravagantly festooned with elegant baroque chandeliers. In his heart he knew it was all crap.

Whether the students write about Martians or movie stars, all their long-short combos create the same effect: pomposity punctured by a pin, rodomontade exposed by rat-a-tat facts, cloudiness made clear.

"Use short words" is as deep a bedrock rule of writing English as any. Wise teachers, in outlining how English blends Mediterranean and North European tongues, suggest to their classes that it's better for characters to walk— plain, short, German word — than to ambulate — fancy, long, Latinate word. Never fear: I'm here not to bury the rule but to praise it. "Use short words" is one of those clichés that are all too true.

HE  SHE  IT SAID  YES  NO LIFE  DEATH  DOG GUTS  HOUSE  MAN  POST  PEN  DOOR  GOD  GOLD — English overflows in one-syllable words, their bap-bap beat every writer's primary resource. One-syllable words are so common in English that good prose contains many more one-syllable words than words of two syllables or more. Whenever we analyze a fine passage like these concluding sentences from The "Genius" by Theodore Dreiser, we find one-syllable words predominating:

"Where in all this — in substance," he thought, rubbing his hand through his hair, "is Angela? Where in substance will be that which is me? What a sweet welter life is — how rich, how tender, how grim, how like a colorful symphony."
Great art dreams welled up in his soul as he viewed the sparkling deeps of space.
"The sound of the wind — how fine it is tonight," he thought.
Then he went quietly in and closed the door.

Sixty-eight of those seventy-nine words have one syllable, seven have two, and four have three. Dreiser doesn't draw our attention to his short words; the passage simply reads well and has a modest grace. In contrast, James Jones makes monosyllables a mark of his tough-guy style — here from Whistle, his last novel, a description of an old soldier, wise as a sea turtle:

 An old turtle who had swum the oceans of his planet for two centuries, avoiding the traps laid by men and wearing the scars to prove it, until now he was so huge there wasn't anything for him to fear anymore. And Alexander was huge. He had always been a big man, even back in the old days, but then he had been relatively lean. Now he carried a huge hard paunch that stuck out in front of him two feet, and meat packed the skin of his head and neck to bursting. And it wasn't fat. It was meat.

This is English prose as simple and strong as can be. Of its hundred words eighty-four have one syllable, including the twenty-four in this splendid run between "carried" and ?bursting":

...carried a huge hard paunch that stuck out in front of him two feet, and meat packed the skin of his head and neck to bursting.

To find more short words than in Jones we need to go back to Daniel Defoe, the father of modern English plain prose; here a storm he describes in Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain:

The next day the wind began to freshen, especially in the afternoon, and the sea to be disturbed, and very hard it blew at night, but all was well for that time; but the night after it blew a dreadful storm, not much inferior, for the time it lasted, to the storm mentioned above, which blew down the lighthouse on the Eddy Stone; about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and, which was worse, the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces.  

Of those one hundred and twenty-one words, all but four have one or two syllables; three have three, and one has four syllables. Defoe achieves his high short-to-long word ratio the old-fashioned way, by sticking to North European words — wind, sea, ships, guns, help; his few long words — especially, inferior and intermixed— are predictably Latinate.          

We could go on reveling in treasure troves of short-word writing — Shakespeare's sonnets and the King James Bible, to name only two — but instead let's look at what happens when long words are allowed to run amok. Read this if you can from Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction by William Ray:

In Validity, Hirsch first introduces validation as a second-level evaluative operation that takes as its objects the preliminary constructions of meaning produced by understanding: "understanding achieves a construction of meaning; the job of validation is to evaluate the disparate constructions which understanding has brought forward." Although not identical with it, this distinction appears to be derived from the classical hermeneutic distinction between the subtilitas explicandi of explanatory phase of hermeneutics, and the subtilitas intelligendi of preliminary understanding, which in Hirsh's system advances through implication rather than explication.

Long words strangle this passage. Of the ninety-one words, only forty-three have one syllable, sixteen have two, eight have three, a staggering twenty-two have four, and two have five. Since most of Ray's one syllable words, a, it that, and in disappear as we read, we are left with one big word lumbering along after another. Readers can handle occasional monstrosities — there's nothing wrong with antidisestablishmentarianism in its place; it's all those four- and five-syllable words that clog up the works:

validity introduces validation second-level evaluative operation preliminary understanding: understanding validation evaluate understanding validity identical hermeneutic subtilitas explicandi explanatory hermeneutics subtilitas intelligendi preliminary understanding implication explication.

Many of the long words are abstract -ation words piled one upon another: "implication rather than explication." Ray's short nouns and verbs —

notion study argues takes objects meaning produced achieves job brought appears derived phase system advances

— tend to be empty words to which concrete words give shape: an object could be a star or a grain of sand. Words like notion, phase, and system give us nothing to put our hands on, nothing to see.

Such long-winded vagueness soon overwhelms the English language, swallowing up meaning in boring fogs of gas. Long-word writing is not, strictly speaking, ungrammatical, for the system that allows:

A cat ate a mouse.

must also allow:

A feline spiritual essence, expressed in the temporal-spatial universe as a furry physical corpus of diminutive dimensions, consumed a furry physical corpus of still more diminutive dimensions.

But that doesn't mean the English language enjoys twisting its tongue over such verbiage, or that readers will leap to unravel its pointless twists and turns.

In summation, when inscribing our mental processes in a verbal medium, we are well advised to utilize most frequently meaningful letter-groupings that are not horizontally over-extensive. Or, use short words.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 11th 2010, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Frederic K.
Yup, gives direction, makes sense and I can use it.
Thursday March 11th 2010, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Jim C. (Indianapolis, IN)
Nicely done. One of the exercises I think would add more punch to the message would be to spend a few moments re-writing the William Ray prose into something bite-sized; with more meaning, to be sure.

Enjoyed the article. I'm often wandering around the office saying "using shorter words", so it's nice to have another example to point to for reference.

Best --

Thursday March 11th 2010, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Mark R. (Duluth, GA)
Thanks Michael. This is especially true in business writing. There are so many media streams the average person must sift through on a daily basis, that to be heard, our communication must be as crisp and concise as possible. I also think smaller words tend to be more emotional (therefore powerful and sticky). Fatigue sets in with longer words & the eyes are moving, but the brain is sorting the sock drawer or playing FreeCell.
Thursday March 11th 2010, 10:45 AM
Comment by: David B.
I like Jim's idea to re-write William Ray's prose to strip the vague and pump up the gist of Ray's ideas. Up to it Michael?
Still, short words are suited to story; philosophy may always need some latinate multisyllables.
Thursday March 11th 2010, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Legal writing provides many examples of convoluted sentences, in word choice and structure.

Reforming that, though 'twould be a tangled web, would be super!
Thursday March 11th 2010, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Legal writing provides many examples of convoluted sentences, in word choice and structure.

Reforming that, though 'twould be a tangled web, would be super!

But I do love the occasional big word. I find it a challenge!
Thursday March 11th 2010, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Therese S. (Detroit, MI)
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have learned there is beauty in simplicity. Taking a complex thought or concept and breaking it down into simple (not simplistic)prose is a form of art.

It's sometimes a challenge not to fall into the "I need to show off my vocabulary to demonstrate my competence" or even more to the point "if I use big words than someone, somewhere is bound to think I'm smart." (not that I need to prove that...)
Saturday March 13th 2010, 12:58 AM
Comment by: Joanna H.
I realized on reading this piece, that I have often read books and articles which required re-reading, perhaps twice, to begin to translate the many-syllabled words into ideas that made sense. There is a certain beauty in some multi-syllabled words, but it's like eating cocolate. A few pieces now and then are fine. A whole box at one time? Not very enjoyable afterwards. Thanks for the article.
Saturday March 13th 2010, 2:30 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
To me, that William Ray passage exemplifies academic writing. It's the reason I didn't go to graduate school. Thank you for your article, which -- oops -- VALIDATES that long-ago decision.
Sunday March 14th 2010, 6:53 PM
Comment by: paul C. (nashville, TN)
I'm a country songwriter in Nashville. The article reminded me of one of favorite things I've written. The message of the song is 'people keep telling me to forget you and how you broke my heart, etc. But i'm just not ready for that yet. Meaning, 'I'd love to but i can't right now. Maybe never.'

The chorus goes: I'm gonna take MY OWN SWEET TIME
That's what I'll do
Gettin' over you

The lyric of the two verses contains phrases that are simple and almost cliche but not (I hope). I always thought that gave the listener something that made them feel comfortable. Phrases like "rumors around town', "slow to come around", "people love to tell me"", "how to forget about you". It's been recorded five or six times but nothing close to a "hit". Maybe the the song is taking it's "own sweet time" getting famous. Thanks for the article which affirmed something I've always felt.
Monday March 15th 2010, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments. Several of you asked if I could rewrite Mr. Ray's long word passage into English. Here's my try.

The core of Ray's passage is his quotation from Hirsch: "understanding achieves a construction of meaning; the job of validation is to evaluate the disparate constructions which understanding has brought forward."

Which means (I think) that our minds follow a two-step process: first, our understanding creates several ideas about what is going on around us, then we decide which of those ideas we like the best.

We wake up on a sunny day and think, "Hmm, I could go to the beach or I could cut the lawn--oh, forget the lawn, I'm going to the beach!"

I discuss this notion In my book, Writing and Life, using the word "thought" for Ray's 'understanding" and "the self" for "validation." The difference between them, I wrote, is, briefly, this: "thought suggests, the self decides."
Tuesday March 16th 2010, 1:54 PM
Comment by: David B.
Well done.
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
In a college writing course, my professor assigned us a paper using only one-syllable words. It was the most thoughtful piece I had ever written. Thanks for reminding me about it!
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 2:48 PM
Comment by: John B. (Alexander City, AL)
You bet your sweet a__ that short words are better than long ones; they are easier to read, to spell and to look up in the word book. If you are like me and point at the words when you read, they are easier to point at, too. And if like me your lips move when you read, you can read them with your jaws slack. Shoot!
Thursday March 18th 2010, 10:40 AM
Comment by: jean S. (tucson, AZ)
Thanks. I love short words. I do have a question on a different topic:

Ninth paragraph: "lets look at what happens"....
This is driving me crazy. Isn't "lets" a contraction of "let us" ? Wouldn't that be "let's"?
I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time!
Thursday March 18th 2010, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dear Jean S., You're right! That "lets" is a typo! But in any case, lets be friends! Oops, I mean let's be friends!

[Apostrophe reinstated! —Ed.]
Thursday March 18th 2010, 2:34 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm going out on a limb (a grammatically conservative one) and predict that 'let's' is one word which the ' disappears from given time.

Kudos to the proofer who noticed it though!

What other words might lose apostrophes? Don't? Can't can't as cant is already a word, though not widely used. It's and its? Will those stay separated?

Another column suggestion for the intrepid loungers here!
Thursday March 18th 2010, 6:38 PM
Comment by: jean S. (tucson, AZ)
Yes, Michael! "Let us" be friends!! Thanks so much for your kind confirmation. And to Jane B. --
thank you as well.
Every day -- well, almost -- I see egregious grammatical errors in well regarded newspapers. (Those that remain -- the papers, not the errors!)
I just grit my teeth and imagine that perhaps I am so old that I no longer remember accurately my grammar lessons. I have given some brief thought to saving up each one of these instances and sending them, all at once, to the editor. So far, I just remain lazy and gritting!

Thanks for each of your comments.

Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Miles H. (Plymouth, MA)
Well written. Your article was enlightening and enjoyable, as were the comments it spawned. After twenty-three years of practicing law, I have decided to try my hand at writing.

I had best move on to reading other helpful articles. Otherwise I may suffer a relapse whereby I am capable only of writing convoluted sentences.

Thank you all for imparting your experiences as I endeavor to learn the barest rudiments of writing fiction.

Sincerely, Miles
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 4:37 AM
Comment by: Yolanthe S.
But what about the great, excessive, convoluted prose by historian Simon Schama: 'For art, like memory, is never truly solid (even when made from stone or wood or metal) and seldom free of melancholy ambiguity, for it presupposes the elusiveness, if not the outright disappearance, of its subject. Its deepest urge is to trap fugitive visions and passing sensations - elation, horror, meditative calm, desire, pathos - the feelings that we have when we experience life most intensely, before routine, time and distance dull the shock and veil the memory...' second paragraph of the introduction to his book 'Hang-ups, essays on painting (mostly)' BBC books.
Could it be written any differently?
Also listen/view his BBC series "The Power of Art", where he actually speaks these sort of sentences flawlessly.
Saturday November 5th 2011, 2:28 PM
Comment by: T R.
Reading this article opened my eyes on short, articulate words, and the proper usage between them and longer verbiage!!!
Monday January 30th 2012, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Rushda R.
Tuesday May 29th 2012, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Muqsit.MHD (Ankara Turkey)
nice job

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