A short note on long words

A few weeks ago I was approached by Emphasis, a UK-based business-writing training company, to write something for their website. The article was published today, so I thought I’d mention it here for anyone who cares to read it.

It’s called “Does word length matter?” (not my title, but I like it) and the article is about the use of long words, short words, plain words and fancy words, right words and wrong words, half-known words and inkhorn words.

In short: it’s about words, and how to pick the best ones when writing for business – though it may be of broader use and appeal than that. There’s no commenting facility after the article, but any thoughts you might have are welcome here, as always.


14 Responses to A short note on long words

  1. Fran says:

    Very good advice. In fact, stupenditiously effectivanarian advisoriness.

  2. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    A beautifully wrought little piece – I wish I’d written it!

    I particularly liked this bit:

    ‘Reading a line aloud to yourself is a good way to assess it. You don’t have to be theatrical; just whispering or mumbling it can help you get a sense of its rhythm and balance.’

    I find that reading my translations out loud to myself as a final check almost always makes me remove or modify something I thought was frightfully neat or clever. It almost always makes the translation better – perhaps not always better as a translation, but better as a piece of English, and/or more comprehensible to a non-native. (My guiding principle is that it should be impossible for the reader to tell that the author is not a native speaker of British English. I regard this as almost as important as conveying the meaning of the Dutch. After all, if the English isn’t perfect, how can one trust the translation?)(Though of course I have to admit that perfect English does not always indicate a ‘perfect’ translation. I’ve had to correct too much rubbish not to know that! And I dare say I’ve committed errors of translation in my time, too!)



  3. John Cowan says:

    But most by Numbers judge a Poet’s Song,
    And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
    In the bright Muse tho’ thousand Charms conspire,
    Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
    Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
    Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
    Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
    These Equal Syllables alone require,
    Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
    While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
    And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line.
         —Pope, Essay on Criticism

  4. Stan says:

    Fran: Thank you, for the visit and the stupendacious neologissement.

    Harry: That’s very kind. Your thoughts on translation make me wonder how differently people might express themselves if they all had access to amanuenses. Writing dominates the eye, but language is auditory first and returns to that mode in the reader’s mind.

    John: A precocious work, and so perfectionist, but always a pleasure to read.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Good job. Long words can hurt the brain and be lazy.

  6. Shaun Downey says:

    Good advice but language like one’s, ahem, membrum virilis, size is less important than technique!

  7. Claude says:

    You always (for me) resuscitate Boileau et L’Art Poétique:

    Qui ne sait se borner ne sut jamais écrire.

    Faites le choix d’un censeur solide et solitaire.

    Vingt fois sur le métier, remettez votre ouvrage.

    I guess the same rules apply in any language. Like Boileau, your perfect short note teaches by the way you wrote it.

  8. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Shaun Downey,

    Hmm…. the long and the short of it, indeed.

    I guess it was only a matter of time* before one of our jocular blogging regulars would make that categorical leap, inspired by the suggestive rejoinder, “Does size really matter?”; in this instance, extrapolated from word-length to, ahem….. the eternally burning question of what, pray tell, is the optimal length of the male ‘appendage’.

    (Hmm…”burning” may have not been the best choice of adjective, in this context. HA!)

    (Taking into account the famous ‘shrinkage’ allowance factor, so hilariously portrayed by “Seinfeld’s” slubbish George Costanza character, in that problematic summer trip to the Hamptons, on Long Island. HA!)**

    Frankly, “membrum virilis” is a new one for me. But the Latin translation does give ‘IT’ a bit of a noble, I dare say, slightly clinical, yet definite tumescent air.

    Shaun, I got your point, and must admit it elicited a wee chuckle, and perhaps a slight blush.

    Moving right along.

    A few words of considerable length (not quite sure of their girth… oh behave!), that came immediately to mind are “discombobulated”, “conflagration”, and “disingenuous”, which could be more simply, and concisely stated as, respectively, confused/ a fire/ phony.

    Although, as Stan suggested in his article, much depends on the context of use, and whether the word is spoken, or written.

    For me, there is a certain satisfying aesthetic to spare, economically employed, concisely written prose, (or speech), as opposed to wordy, multi-syllabic fare.

    Case in point, I recall the crusading conservative spokesperson/ publisher/ author/ essayist, the late William F. Buckley’s rousing TV debates back in the day (“Firing Line”, I believe) w/ the likes of author Gore Vidal, where it appeared to me that Buckley was intentionally wearing his vast erudition on his sleeve, relishing in his throwing out ‘BIG’ words merely to impress his audience, and perhaps, on occasion, befuddle, or fluster his debating opponent.

    I imagine he expected his attuned viewing audience to have a command of, and facility w/ the language close to his high standards, and expectations; and he was damned if he was going to somehow dumb-down his discourse for anyone.

    He wielded that famous quivering tongue of his almost as a fleshy weapon, like a swaying cobra telegraphing a sudden strike. But I digress.

    *Shaun, your just beat me to the punch, mate. My mind often drifts into the gutter, dare I say, nether regions of the imagination, as well.

    **Apologies to any folks who have never watched this popular ’90s-era TV sitcom. Let’s just say very cold sea water played a part in George’s apparent humiliation over his shrinking ‘part’. Enough said.

    @Claude. Nice to ‘see’ you back, and thanks for those wise, instructive lines of poesy from Boileau.

  9. Stan says:

    Marc: Thank you, sir.

    Shaun: Quite right. My working title for the article had no such innuendo, but it wasn’t much good.

    Claude: Merci: à toi et à Boileau! Écrire c’est récrire.

    Alex: Thank you for reading the article and sharing your thoughts. I have the same attraction to plain, concise expression – which isn’t to deny sesquipedalianism its place, but it needs a damn good reason.

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Point well taken, Stan.

    Perhaps one shouldn’t begrudge say a loquacious septuagenarian w/ a penchant and enthusiasm for raconteuring, the luxury of sesquipedalianism.

    I was struck by the embedded root word, “pedal’, for foot; “iamb” for metric foot, in poetry. (The word “bipedal”, describing homo sapiens’ natural mode of perambulation comes to mind. Oops! I could have used “walking”, there.)

    At first blush, being totally unfamiliar w/ this doozy of a word, I was afeared it held some relationship to… ahem… a certain, (as blogger Shaun put it), “membrum virilis”. (Like an ancient “ism” related to some early phallus worshiping fertility cult. HA!)

    Hmm… why does poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s name suddenly arise….. as opposed to say comedian Martin Short?

    Okay. I promise to behave…. going forward.

  11. Sean Jeating says:

    Emphasis will be delighted having caught such a brillant writer for their ‘portfolio’.

    Emphasis?! Emphasis on making money with other avaricious snags who due to their abilities are not able to speak one straight sentence, hm?
    Sprache als eierlegende Wollmilchsau, hm?
    (Language as egg-laying woolmilksow, hm?)
    From what I do experience day by day, there are some things one cannot learn. Emphasis on <i<cannot. Either you can, or you can’t.
    I do feel unhappy that I am privileged. Emphasis on un. I wish many more people were able to sense brabblers and braggadocians. Oh, and may I put also emphasis on that I’d be delighted to see ‘entrepreneurs’ such as those of “Emphasis” soon feeling the urgent need to start a new and more worthwhile life-task?.
    Oh my. Long words. Short words. Word nerds.

    End of rant.

    The peace of the night.

  12. factualfantasy says:

    Reblogged this on Complexity Reduction and commented:
    As much as we focus on the meaning, the means of expression still matters too much.

  13. substuff says:

    I feel I should own up to that headline. Sooner or later I’m going to stop doing that, I promise. Probably on the same day I stop slipping ‘Six of the best’ into anything with six points.

    Sorry, Stan, for lowering the tone of an otherwise thoughtful article.

    Thank you very much for writing for Emphasis, we were delighted to have you.

    @Sean That’s a fair whack of conclusions to jump to.

  14. Stan says:

    Alex: It is a fine word. You could say it goes a long way towards justifying itself.

    Sean: There are also some things one can learn. Lots of people and businesses want help with written communication, and Emphasis provides services for them. I don’t understand what you’re so angry about, or why you would make such assumptions. Please email me if you’ve anything more to say about it; I’m closing comments on this for now.
    [Edit: Comments reopened.]

    substuff: It’s a far better title than mine was. Yours is succinct, to the point, and just a little cheeky. Thanks very much for your kind words; it was a pleasure to write for you.

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