My PhD mentor was a great guy, but like most of us he wasn’t perfect. What was his flaw? He liked to use big words. Depending on the audience, airing out the “big words” might be appropriate, but for the most part big words make for cumbersome and confusing writing. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, advises that we not use a long word when a shorter one will do. He had a lot to say about adverbs and passive verbs as well, but that’s a topic for another day.

What difference does it make? Big words, little words, “just right” words, who cares?  You do – if you are writing to be understood. Words are the foundation of your manuscript, grant, blog post, or even email. A shaky foundation makes for shaky writing. John Wooden, one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, taught about foundations. He recruited the best basketball players in the country to his program at UCLA, yet the beginning of the first practice of the year was always the same. He taught the players how to put on their socks and shoes. Why? Because socks with wrinkles cause blisters, blisters cause sore feet, and sore feet put good players on the bench.

The words you choose, or as importantly don’t choose, are the key to clarity. When you choose your words with intent, you write a powerful piece. Words are a tool you must use, but if you write with intention you will get much more out of them. It’s like the remote for your TV. You have to use it to turn the TV on (well, I do, because I’m lazy), but if you only use it for the power button you’re missing out on all the other features like record, search, etc.

Now that I’ve stated my case for the importance of words, I’ll step down from my soap box and get back to the topic at hand. Big words. Why do we use big words when smaller words have the same meaning? Scientists are supposed to be smart, so we want to sound smart. When we use longer words when a shorter one will do, however, who are we writing for? Are we writing for ourselves or the reader? Stringing together unnecessarily long, complex words can slow down, confuse, and/or frustrate the reader, perhaps to the point of giving up (think legal brief). Let’s look at a couple examples:

The inebriated stripling inadvertently micturated in the corner.

You might breeze right through this, or a couple of the above words might make you pause for a second. The short word translation, of course, is:

The drunk teen accidentally peed in the corner.

If you haven’t heard the word micturate before, you probably got it from the context of the sentence. You don’t want your reader to guess, though, because he/she is unlikely to take the time to look it up and their contextual definition might not be correct.

Let’s look at another sentence.

As the dour dowager stepped outside, the petrichor in the air elicited a glower.

In this case understanding the unknown words from context is a bit trickier. You probably know dour and dowager, especially if you’re a fan of BBC shows like Downton Abbey. What is petrichor? If you already know, you have an extraordinary vocabulary so you have to be particularly careful about “big words”. For everyone else, what do you think it means? Is it a smell, like pollution or manure? Is visible, like haze or dust? The context implies that it is something negative. The short word translation is:

As the crabby old woman stepped outside, the smell of fresh rain made her frown.

Why would anyone frown at the smell of fresh rain? Who knows, maybe she didn’t want to get her feet wet or her grass needed mowing. We’ll never know. The point is that you/your reader can’t always figure out the meaning of words through their context. Of course, as with everything in life there is a balance. I’m not suggesting you write in crayon with only 3 letter words. The key benchmark, as mentioned above, is whether the larger word is necessary.

My intent is not for you to think about every word, as if you’re cleaning out your closet with Marie Kondo. I’m just suggesting a little awareness. However, I pledge that if you don’t divagate from your bourne of scribing with intent, the resolution of your writing will be meliorated.

Related Resources:

Exciting AND Consistent? Verbs and Nouns in Scientific Writing

Who Are You Really Talking To?

The Readability of Scientific Texts is Decreasing Over Time

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