Short words are better than long words


George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer,” but none of those linguistic outrages would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

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