Length and legibility

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

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At the Subversive Copy Editor blog, Carol Fisher Saller has written a short and solid defence of the long word:

I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that all our most important freedoms depend ultimately on clarity in the written word. But “short” does not always equal “clear.” In short, in word choice, as in other things, long can be just right.

Before coming to this conclusion, she notes the poor reputation long words have long suffered. Books on writing style love to condemn them, many taking their cue from one another or from the more authoritative of their kind. Take for example the advice presented “roughly in order of merit” on the first page of the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

The Fowlers’ compact guidelines are useful in their way, but they oughtn’t to be mistaken for unbreakable axioms. I’ll keep my discussion to word length. Certainly the use of long words can be motivated by a desire to impress or mystify. Sesquipedality (also sesquipedalianism: the use of words 1.5 feet long) can be justified, but it’s best indulged with caution, humour or irony — and even then with restraint and with a care for the surrounding text. Though the ornate style was once fashionable, nowadays it lends prose an awkward and pompous flavour that can quickly alienate an audience.

Many readers appreciate being confronted with an occasional unfamiliar or unusual word, but if it happens in every other sentence they are likely to become irritated. They will judge, consciously or not, whether an opulent vocabulary is worn lightly or heavily. Clear, well-ordered prose can enable readers to infer the meaning of an unknown term from the context, at least enough to get the gist and continue reading. This demands skill and sensitivity from the writer.

Politicians, on the other hand, are notorious for using longer, more abstract words when shorter, more concrete ones would do. This strategy helps them obscure their meaning and avoid saying anything they can’t later deny, undermine, or contradict. When we use long words, what matters is that we do so in good faith and for sound reasons. As John McIntyre writes:

You have to match up vocabulary with subject, audience, occasion, and publication, and that requires developing judgment.

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Back on Carol Fisher Saller’s blog, she observes that although writing and editing coaches love to go on about the importance of short words,

good teachers know that insisting on short words is merely a dramatic way to prepare students for the more refined message, which is to use the right word. And sometimes the right word is long.

Broadly, I agree with this, though I would refine the message further (see below). As I noted in a comment on her post, a word’s length is of less consequence than its suitability. If you ask for sodium chloride at the dinner table, you might prompt a giggle or a raised eyebrow; if you ask for salt in a chemistry laboratory, you might be asked to clarify. Context is key. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” wrote Shakespeare — and for action you can also read object, referent, etc. — but the closest match isn’t always obvious.

I think that stressing “the right word” masks the fact that there are degrees of rightness. Several words might be quite right for a given spot; writers and editors must select the one that best fits the text in light of its intended or likely readership, also taking into account such factors as clarity, consistency, connotation, euphony, rhythm, force, and formality. In the title of this post, for example, suitability would have been a closer match to my intended meaning, but the allusion to Sense and Sensibility would have been too faint; legibility is close enough, and its alliterative function satisfies my secondary whim.*

These and other considerations can be weighed up when choosing words. Implying the existence of One True Word might seduce writers into a kind of lexical idealism, when in fact the choice can be more complicated, subtle, and idiosyncratic. Language is more an approximation of sense than a precise manifestation of it. This is not to condone vague and loose writing, of which the world has more than enough. It’s up to users to decide how much care and precision to invest in their language. Bryan Garner puts it well:

The best writers match substance with form. They use language precisely, evocatively, even daringly.

In most contexts it’s best not to use long words unnecessarily, but the main thing is to pick the most suitable and effective words regardless of length. Some long words are unavoidable; some are even beautiful. Whatever their size, words should be used with love and common sense, not as a means of parading your education or disguising your opinions. Be guided by the context and by your audience. If in doubt, read aloud and trust your ear, or the ear of a helpful neighbour.

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* Size and suitability was another option, but its assonance let it down.

[image source]

9 Responses to Length and legibility

  1. John Cowan says:

    Yes, but it would have kept the alliteration on /s/ (of course, alliterating on /p/ would have been equally satisfactory).

  2. Stan says:

    John: Another reason: since size suggests three dimensions, it might have evoked font size. That helped give Length and legibility the edge.

  3. James Reilly says:

    A good post, Stan, on an important topic – choosing our words wisely. I must admit to a little twitch at your use of “legibility” in the title but I find your explanation of why you chose it to be satisfying and it does sound good.
    Arising from the Indo-European root “leg”, meaning “collect” one could suggest there are two types of collecting required for legibility.

  4. Stan says:

    Thank you, James. To help forestall future twitching, I offer the Shorter OED’s definitions of legibility:

    1. Of writing: clear enough to be read; easily deciphered.
    2. Of a literary composition: accessible to readers; easy to read; readable. rare.
    3. transf. & fig. Clear, discernible. E17.

    Senses 1 and 2 were in use in late middle English. Although the first is the most common meaning, at least in my experience, I like when words have rare alternative meanings; this was another argument in legibility‘s favour.

  5. Sean Jeating says:

    Excellent, Stan. Whenever my brows raised or formed a question mark, in the next passage you’d let them relax.

    In most contexts it’s best not to use long words unnecessarily, […] let me remember that once a friend in Kent wrote down how to pronounce a certain Welsh place name.
    On my way westwards, again and again I repeated the name, so that at last I was able to spell and pronounce it.
    Pleased with myself arriving at said place, while having a tea and a scone in a gallery, I told the landlady that I was not sure if I had found my destination as I had nowhere seen a place-name sign.
    With a tiny smile she asked: ‘What sign have you been looking for?’
    ‘For the sign of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndropwlllantysiliogogogoch?
    Whereupon she burst out into laughter: ‘Oh dear, that would be a bit widish a sign. Ours says just Llanfair PG, and so do the people here.’

    Had all my efforts been in vain then? No. After all, the Lady did not charge me the tea and the scone. And: 25 years later I was able to tell a lengthy anecdote.
    Not sure I am, though, about its legibility.

  6. Tim says:

    The length of a word doesn’t matter to me, whether it be written or read. I choose words according to their meaning and the way that they sound amongst other words. I’ll also consult a thesaurus often for ideas and to push my creativity further.

    Nothing wrong with sesquipedalians, just as there is nothing wrong with neologytes.

    Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicavolcanoconiosis has always just rolled off the tongue. :p

  7. Stan says:

    Sean: That’s a great story, and plenty legible! Even place names, then, can be unwieldy, and the locals will abbreviate them to a sensible length. I hope your host in Wales was impressed as well as amused, and I’m glad your tongue-twisting efforts were modestly rewarded. The village’s Wikipedia page is entertaining, and includes an image of a sign so wide it just about fits on the page! You did well to fit it in your head.

    Tim: Your attitude matches my own: length is a lot less important than suitability. Simeon Potter has a good line about thesauruses: they’re “a good reminder of words momentarily forgotten, but a bad guide to words previously unknown.” By neologytes do you mean people who neologise? I call them neologisers, but I like that you neologised neologyte.

  8. John Cowan says:

    The extended name of Llanfair Pwyllgwyngyll was almost certainly invented by a local when the railway came through, in order to mock the English. But at least it’s meaningful: ‘Mary’s church [in the] hollow of the white hazel right by the rapid whirlpool [of] St. Tysilio’s cave.” There’s an error in it, though: the soft mutation should have changed llan Tysilio to llandysilio, but it didn’t.

    In Brithenig, a hypothetical Brito-Romance language, its name is Plui-fair-llagun-blanc-coryll-ent-iost-ill-rhebidd-gury-plui-tysilio-cafurn-rys (a name I made up myself). I carefully preserved the same error: pluif ‘parish church’ is from Latin plebs ‘people’, like Italian pieve, hence Pluifair from pluif Mair with mutation and plui Tysilio without.

    • Stan says:

      That’s commendable work, John. And I hadn’t come across Brithenig before – an interesting experiment. I like that its creator emphasises fun as motivation for creating it.

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