The Right Word is the Simpler Word

Note: This is a follow-up video/post to my post “To People Who Think I Use Big Words to Sound Smart”.

After reading “Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane, which was full of clear and powerful language, I realized that the right word is often the simpler word.

This is because the goal of communication is to make sure you are understood. It’s less about what you know and more about how you show what you know.

When given a choice, always choose the simpler word because:

  1. Simpler words are familiar, and therefore understood quickly.
  2. Simpler words are often more in context (vs. a more archaic or technical big word).
  3. Simpler words communicate complicated ideas better.

This goes back to the post about how my classmates said I was using big words to sound smart. After reading “Mystic River”, I’ve started thinking about things from my classmates’ point of view.

My classmates misunderstood me because I used big words purely to help myself learn, instead of trying to communicate well. Ultimately, it was my own damn fault that my classmates misunderstood me—I was not using the right words! I was using big words to improve my understanding, sure, but I didn’t consider whether those words were the right words to convey my ideas.

Now I know better. Now I’m choosing the right—and often simpler—words.

22 thoughts on “The Right Word is the Simpler Word

  1. writingbolt says:

    I think a better way of looking at this language problem–if it ever becomes a problem–is to “know your audience.” If you know the education level of your audience is below a certain “age,” adjust your vocabulary accordingly…if that’s even possible.

    You were smart for practicing those bigger words in daily use. I didn’t think of it that way when I noticed you using words even I didn’t know/use regularly. But, that makes sense.

    Your classmates were responding to lacking knowledge of those words by claiming you were thinking less of them. That is–as you say of word usage–out of context. You were not turning your nose up at them. You were stretching your brain muscles.

    I used to get the same speech from my classmates when I expressed a dislike of tattoos, piercings, foul language, etc. They’d accuse me of thinking I am better than them. That was not the case. I simply voiced what I disliked. It was hard to hold back. But, unlike those who belittled me for my size or build, I didn’t make sharp cracks about what I didn’t like. I simply stated the feeling. “Ugh. I am not a fan of tattoos.” “Piercings make me nauseous.”

    I have encountered authors–even in my limited reading–that seem to “show off” big/unfamiliar words. But, maybe, even my bristly reaction to such usage is like that of our classmates, and I simply needed to up my vocabulary. Or, I just need to pick up a different book (to read).

    On that note, I am currently reading an adventure story that is heavy on weapon and military tactics. It’s like reading a soldier’s journal. It’s rather dry and unappealing to me other than making notes for future reference/usage (if I ever needed to describe a particular weapon).

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yeah, totally, knowing the audience is important. The story you’re reading may appeal to someone with a military or academic background, but it may be less appealing to someone who either doesn’t come from the same background or isn’t interested and/or isn’t reading it for some purpose.

      It seems easier to “know your audience” when it comes to writing than it is for day-to-day conversations with people you’re not familiar with. When in doubt, just choose the simpler word.

      • writingbolt says:

        No, it’s not easier when writing because you don’t know who will pick up your book. 😛 Case in point, the book we just discussed briefly. Maybe the author anticipated military fans to read his stories. I am not as interested in weapons as I am myths and cultural elements. I have completed a few books with an idea of what audience I’d prefer. But, I cannot determine who reads my work, even if I enclose a warning to young readers.

        • Millie Ho says:

          It’s easier to know your audience when writing because you can say “I’m writing for young adults” or “I’m writing for space opera fans”. You can set genre parameters that way to guide your word choice on a high level.

          I don’t think you should be concerned with determining who picks up your book. That’s the beauty of it—some people will like it, some people will hate it. It’s a natural filtering system, but the ones who stay will be worth it.

          • writingbolt says:

            But, isn’t it just as easy to get to know the person in front of you and figure out what sort of language/words you need to get through to them?

            You could just as well fail/disappoint a genre of fans.

            I can’t exactly group my vocabulary in levels of intelligence, though. I just have to do my best with each person I encounter. If it goes sour, I chalk it up to bad astrological timing.

            Well, I think some authors/artists SHOULD be concerned about what they put out and who picks it up. Words/Images can be as dangerous as a gun left on the floor.

  2. Paul says:

    Great topic! When I was in the teaching business, I taught vocabulary and, as it always is with teaching, I learned a few things myself. One, every discipline has its own vocabulary. Writingbolt is absolutely correct. I remember reading Dan Brown’s novel, Digital Fortress, and half the time I was lost in the tech language. So there’s that!

    The other thing is: What do we mean when we say “big” words? I think the use of the word “big” is problematical. The best writing for me is as you mentioned in your talk, clarity. I want to understand. And, as a writer, I absolutely desire to be understood. Often clarity is achieved when an author possesses what I like to refer to as a deep vocabulary. That is, the writer doesn’t use the same word over and over.

    For example: A character is described as follows: “Linda was a friendly woman whose cheerful sincerity caused others to smile, and everyone agreed that such an amiable lady would certainly be the best choice for mayor.” (sorry for the awkward phrasing.)

    The question is: Is the word “amiable” a big word? It’s not a word one hears overly much. If one marched up to a number of citizens on the street and asked each one, “Are you Amiable?” The answers would probably be hilarious. But in the above impromptu example, the word is easily understood as a result of its contextual placement, and it works! One could use “friendly” a second time, but it suddenly sounds ironic, which may not be efficacious!

    Whoa! Am I being a show off? No. Why? Because I know you know the word. So, I would say, it’s okay to use “big” words when:

    One, as Writingbolt correctly mentioned: the audience is familiar with the word, hence it’s no longer big.

    And Two, when the big word IS better than the simpler term. I think you were getting to that point towards the end of your talk…which I enjoyed quite a bit… At any rate, I’m gonna stop here because now you’ve inspired me to do my own blog on a related topic! So thank you Millie, I truly mean that. This is a fascinating and terribly important issue.

    • Millie Ho says:

      A big word likely means different things to different people. In the video/blog post, I used it as an umbrella term for any word that you may not be familiar with or may know but don’t use or see in use often. I should’ve clarified this! As for “amiable”, I actually hear that word used often, so this goes back to the idea that big words mean different things to different people. I agree that we should take the audience into consideration.

      Re: clarity being achieved when the writer doesn’t use the same word over and over, I see what you mean. But what if they could convey the same idea/quality with, say, a five word description, all made up of relatively simple words, instead of using one big word? I’ve seen this done effectively in Lydia Davis’s works, where she implants a sharp image in your mind using a paragraph made entirely of carefully chosen simple words. Hmm, I’m gonna have to think about this!

      I’m glad this inspired a blog post! Thanks for reading and sharing your interpretation.

      • Paul says:

        And thank you for such a thoughtful reply. It’s a very important topic and one that I believe isn’t discussed enough! So, I’m very grateful for your bringing this idea to the fore! 🙂

  3. chrisbkm says:

    This was loaded Millie. I’m a true believer of – don’t let the words get in the way of what you want to say. That said, when you began to talk about everyone having their own style, that’s as important as your first message. The thing perhaps is mastering – or recognizing your style and regardless of whether you say it with 5 or 50 words – keeping clarity and communication top of mind. The starkest line can vibrate with intensity… then again I can be brought to my knees by insanely descriptive writing. We like different authors for different reasons. I also recognize the authors who write in a similar style to my own and often read to help me write. Good message in your post. Always keep the audience (the person you are talking to) in mind.
    Your videos are a pleasure to watch Millie. You’ve got a great style.

    • Millie Ho says:

      “I also recognize the authors who write in a similar style to my own and often read to help me write.”

      Really neat point, Chris. This is true for me as well, and I like how you said you seek out authors who write in a similar style to your own, instead of it being the other way around, where you’re just adopting their style as your own.

      I wish someone told me earlier on that I needed to work on my personal style first, instead of being heavily influenced by authors I like. Same goes with clarity—know your audience, but still find the space and balance to put out work that is uniquely yours. I’m glad this post resonated with you!

  4. kvennarad says:

    You’re expecting me do disagree, aren’t you! 😀

    I won’t. It’s a cogent point of view. It reminds me very much of George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language. http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
    In particular it reminds me of his famous six dicta:

    i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    I especially like the last one! But then Orwell went on to invent the most simplified, clarified version of English ever devised – ‘Newspeak’ – and the result was devastatingly barbarous. I like to think that Orwell did this deliberately in order to emphasise rule vi.

    I enjoyed reading everyone else’s commentary above. Myself, if I’m going to add anything, I will say that when it comes to language there’s a time to stand still, a time to march, and a time to dance.

  5. weszor says:

    I always like to call back to Stephen King’s rule in “On Writing:” Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.

    It really is true, but it’s also a rule that depends on the market, too. If you’re writing something in the realm of literary fiction with an educated readership, then using those esoteric words is probably not just ok, but expected to the point. On the other hand, Harry Potter created one of the biggest fictional universes since Star Wars with language meant for children. It’s all about context and how you apply the words you use.

    The idea is basically to have as many tools in your shed as possible. You may use the hammer or wrench the most, but sometimes you might need that one specific drill bit to make one specific hole. Thankfully, unlike a toolshed, there’s no cost on our end for expanding a vocabulary for those ‘just in case’ moments. 🙂

    • Millie Ho says:

      I agree that it’s about having as many tools as possible. What you said about using esoteric words in literary fiction reminds me of an essay I read some time ago about how some literary magazines were publishing confusing and esoteric prose that (intentionally or not) filter out certain readers.

      Now I wonder if there’s no need for esoteric words at all, even in literary fiction, if you can find a simpler alternative that can communicate the same idea. But maybe it’s about finding the more simpler of the two esoteric words to describe an idea. Sometimes the right word is a big word.

  6. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Finding a balance between flowery and descriptive prose is very difficult, in my opinion, but it is also half the fun! I would not necessarily shy away from using obscure words, if they happen to fit snugly – and that ‘if’ is the key for me personally. I enjoy complex language, but not complexity for the sake of complexity. I think that Patrick Rothfuss does a good job in blending the two, creating a flowery yet descriptive prose that flows both pleasantly and smoothly.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for the Patrick Rothfuss recommendation, I’ll check out his fantasy books! Yes, I agree that it’s about finding a balance. There are some writers who have a great instinct for picking out the right words, like James Ellroy and Margaret Atwood. It’s encouraging to see that such sentences exist! I’m sure this will get easier with continued practice and lots of rewriting.

  7. Pleasant Street says:

    Well done. Still, though, it frustrates me when they (not only kids) assume your intention is to show off, etc. I had that with one of my children. I knew it wasn’t so, they just were well read and liked those words

  8. rung2diotimasladder says:

    I’m not sure what a simpler word is, but if you mean don’t be an obscurantist ass, then yeah, I agree! There’s nothing I love more than precision. Taking the time to find the right word—however big or small—is one of the great joys of writing.

  9. Shannon Noel Brady says:

    I definitely understand the importance of this, but the logophile in me is sad to imagine great words fading from existence due to lack of use. In everyday communication, simpler language is best, but I think fiction should have some leeway. Don’t throw obscure words around in every sentence all willy-nilly, of course, but maybe once in awhile, for a word that’s really special… <3

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