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Writer Beware: There’s Danger in Them Thar Big Words

Writer Beware: There’s Danger in Them Thar Big Words

The waning use of big words comes from a lack of willingness to learn what they mean.

Usage then fades into phrases of three to five words that mean the same thing as one, and prose then becomes a less descriptive way for writers to get to the point.

  • Problem? No. Not in today’s world where readers would rather fart and have fun than think and learn.
  • Bothersome? Yes. Most bothersome as reading to learn is no longer seen as fun because it requires deep thought.
  • Harmful? Possibly. Especially when those who use big words don’t understand what they mean.

One problem with big-word usage is the perception that it’s only done by pompous snobs.

Maybe. But not in all cases.

How to Use Big Words and Avoid The Tom-Snobbery Effect

Writing big words in content is an efficient way to get your point across, and it’s quite detailed and direct, or what editors call “concise.” Conversely, it makes sense that an easily comprehensible style takes precedence over difficult formal articulation because—well—it’s easier to read.

Why not a balance of the two?

Your audience determines your prose style, your style directs your word choice, and your content falls under one of two general style categories:

  • academic and formal;
  • general media and conversational.

If you’re afraid you might offend your audience, write to your audience—but don’t write down to them.

Respect their minds and super-size your word choice now and again. Even people who primarily read conversational content enjoy, from time-to-time, reading and learning the meaning of a challenging word or two.

Word choice helps create the tone of your writing voice as well, so choose your big words wisely. It can also threaten your livelihood, so tread with big words lightly.

How One Big Word Singed My Sensibility

Have you been burned for using a big word? I’d love to hear your story.

Here’s mine.

In schools, vocabulary lists abound with flowery lexicons of learned (\ˈlər-nəd\) language; yet societally, a singular cringe happens when a large readership encounters polysyllabic words used in isolation or in succession.

If society shies away from using big words, why teach them? It’s a question I asked myself many times while teaching English. Here’s an example of word choice denigration that best illustrates my point.

In my tenure as an educator, the word “taciturn” seriously confused a parent and nearly cost me my job. I used to teach Pre-Advanced Placement English classes, and the vocabulary word lists for study challenged my students—so—I designed an interactive activity to help them learn the meaning of the words.

The last step in the activity required students to pick one word they felt described themselves best.

One of my students had a hard time choosing and asked me which one I thought fit. I chose “taciturn,” and she liked it; however, when she shared with her father that I had called her “taciturn,” he heard it as “tacky turd.”

Yes, indeed. It’s true.

Several weeks after the activity ended, he reported me to the school principal who promptly summoned me to participate in a fact-finding mission. I could not, for the life of me, understand what I had said to cause my student to think I had called her a “tacky turd.”

While the principal and I talked, I asked that my student be invited to discuss with us the situation. As it turned out, her father had told both the principal and his daughter that “taciturn” was not a word and decided that I had actually called her a “tacky turd.”

How DO these people find me?

Mercy!

When I explained the meaning of “taciturn” to the principal, and why I chose it for my student, I received a look of surprise. I’m not sure what the surprised look revealed, but I assume it indicated the principal either thought the word was difficult and felt sorry for my student or didn’t know what the word meant.

Most bothersome and insulting was the insinuation.

In another instance, I had a parent question why I would require her child to learn what the word “ewe” meant. She told me there was no such word because she had never heard of it.

After thirty years of this insanity, I left the profession. I decided I had experienced enough “tacky-turd” situations to last a lifetime.

FROM EXPERIENCE TO RESOLVE

Big words are only a threat if you don’t know how to use them correctly.

They’re more of a benefit than a hindrance because they help you—

  • alleviate the monotony of redundancy,
  • defend yourself succinctly and intelligently,
  • get to the point with clarity,
  • add rhythm to and help narratives flow smoothly, and
  • develop powerful, substantive content worth reading.

I now write any way I please, and I try to offer helpful information without offending readers, but I love big words, extended sentences, and using nouns as verbs sometimes if it serves a purpose—even if I get cap-slapped by pedants and dinged for having SEO readability scores that rank my prose as too hard to read.

FYI: My SEO for this post shows the following analysis:

And I’ve used plenty of words throughout this post considered too bothersome to understand.

Writing is an art, and I plan to continue experimenting with the craft to approximate it.

Why?

Because I believe the human mind craves challenge and thrives on creative expression, and I intend to respect that part of the brain where all things language operates and clever twists of phrase originate.

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About the author

Sheri Rose administrator

Writing a book? Need someone to edit the content? I can help. My specialty is substantive and developmental editing. Substantive/Developmental editing is like collaborative gardening, and I help cultivate manuscripts. I work with writers to design plots and organizational structures that develop thematic elements; dig through content and weed out the excess that interrupts narrative flow; plant suggestions and additions that enhance narrative action; feed meaning with grammatical structures that detail intent, and nurture book writing processes to fruition with tools that maintain style and voice.

2 comments so far

Sophie WailesPosted on4:16 pm - Oct 5, 2017

I love learning new words and I’m a big believer that life is very dull when your vocabulary consists of short, uninteresting words. I am often asked by colleagues from work what a word means and I am happy to explain, even if it is a simple word. I do have a funny anecdote: I once took chickpea and chard soup to work, and when I had to explain to a colleague what these things were she responded with ‘why didn’t you just say pea and cabbage then?’. I sighed a huge sigh that day, wouldn’t life be boring if it was all peas and cabbage?

    Sheri RosePosted on5:28 pm - Oct 5, 2017

    Words are so much fun, aren’t they? — because there are just so many ways to say the same thing. Should the occasion arise where you take your chickpea and chard soup to work again, describe it as such, and get the same reaction, just say, “I’m practicing the art of culinary alliteration.” Then, if you need to, teach them what alliteration and culinary mean. Hopefully, you won’t have to explain the meaning of either, but it’s OK if you do. You’re keeping the creativity alive. Many blessings. 😎

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