Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Use multisyllabic words sparingly, part of Writing in Plain English.
- [Voiceover] Listen to these statements. The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it as much as the use of unfamiliar words, Hippocrates. The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words, George Eliot. Use familiar words, words that your reader will understand, and not words they will have to look up. No advice is more elementary and no advice is more difficult to accept. When we feel an impulse to use a marvelously exotic word, let us lie down until the impulse goes away, James Kilpatrick.
What do Hippocrates, Eliot, and Kilpatrick have in common? All three are writers, of medical information, English literature, and newspaper articles, ranging from the time period of 460 B.C. to 2010 A.D., that's over 2,500 years giving the same advice, use the simple word. That advice of course, supports how the plain English readability indices determine readability levels. Part of the formula is how many multi-syllable words are used, and emphasizes the earlier caution that the purpose of our writing is to express clearly our message rather than try to impress the reader with our large vocabulary.
Let's aside here for a moment. If the short, easy word is usually a better choice, then why work on learning new words, on improving our vocabularies? Because the more words we know, the better able we are to choose the exact word we mean, more than happy, for example, ecstatic or elated are stronger words. One of those would be more effective. What's the longest word possible? I'm not even going to attempt to pronounce it, for a couple reasons, first I can't.
And notice the ellipsis marks, which means something's been left out, what's been left out? One hundred eighty nine thousand, seven hundred sixty eight letters. Yes, it would take three and a half hours to pronounce this chemical name for human protein. So that's the second reason. If you're curious about other long words, check out this website, now let's get realistic and look at words you might be tempted to use and their fewer-syllable counterparts. Please send your remittance of 25 dollars, which is past due.
Please pay the past due 25 dollars. Remittance three syllables, pay one syllable. Will you help us in ascertaining whether our neighborhood association enforces its laws? Will you help us learn if our neighborhood association enforces its laws? Ascertaining, four syllables, learn, one syllable. We will need five volunteers to help us facilitate setting up for the monthly meeting. What one-syllable word would you use to replace facilitate? We need five volunteers to help set up the monthly meeting.
Facilitate four, help one. All of our company's resources will be utilized for the upcoming marketing campaign. Your one-syllable word revision for utilized? All company resources will be used for the upcoming marketing campaign. Utilized, three syllables, used, one. With just those four examples, we have a difference of 14 syllables versus four. Keep in mind that the purpose of using the fewer syllabled words is not necessarily that the reader won't know the meaning of remittance, ascertaining, facilitate, and utilized, the point is that reading multi-syllabic words slows down both our reading rate and our overall comprehension.
So in summation, utilizing fewer syllabic words is the recommendation that will help you manufacture more significant writing that is approachable for your recipient. Wait, on second thought, let's make that, in summary, use short words to help your reader. Or better yet, write in plain English.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
- Explain how to make your writing clear, concise, and straightforward.
- Recognize the average reading level for most audiences.
- Identify commonly overused words.
- Recognize how strong verbs can help avoid passive writing.
- Explore the benefits of deleting extra words.
- Define “weasel words.”