Simple Words

Yesterday I saw a Tweet by Paul Graham where he went against the traditional convention of using “vocabulary words” in one’s writing. His rationale behind this stance is that the best writing uses the simplest possible words. Recently, I have started to gain an appreciation for this way of thinking, and have started to use simpler words in my writing.

I think that we default to using longer words because it allows us to demonstrate our knowledge of the language we are speaking. After all, if we have spent time learning long and complex words, then we should indeed use them. Indeed, in some circumstances using longer words is most appropriate, but those cases are few and far between. The problem with using complex words does not lie in knowing them, but rather using them frequently to convey important points. If you know a long word, great. You should ask yourself whether that long word will add value to the conversation, or whether we are using it just to showcase our knowledge of the language.

Another reason, as Graham mentioned in his Tweet, is that schools often teach students to use more complex words and expand their vocabulary. Indeed, learning more complex words is beneficial, especially at younger ages — it allows us to gain a broader insight into our language. Learning more complex words is important for us because there will likely be a time where a complex word would fit in very well with our writing and would add a lot of value to our text. However, schools end up teaching people that using longer words is better in every scenario, which makes our communication through reading and writing less authentic, and increases the barrier for participation. The fact that schools teach that “vocabulary words” are better makes it difficult for people to reject that notion, because their teacher has said it was the best thing to do. Because schools teach this, it also becomes engrained into the rest of the curriculum — teachers expect students to use complex words in their essays and other work. It makes it really difficult for us to practice using simple words.

The first major advantage to using simple words is that it lowers the barrier for understanding a conversation — or participating in a conversation for that matter. Using complex words makes it more difficult for people to understand what you are saying, which means that less people will be able to appreciate your thoughts. Even if you have a great idea, it will not matter if you do not describe it in a way that everyone can understand. This effect is amplified if someone is talking about a subject that you are interested in. If someone is using complex words, it can discourage another person from participating in the conversation who may not have such words in their vocabulary. In this case, everyone loses out: the people talking can’t benefit from the wisdom of the person who wants to speak, and vice versa.

This effect is also present in written means of communication, and has a great effect on the content that we read. If we see an article with a lot of complex words, it may discourage people from reading it because they would not be able to fully understand it. The writer should always assume that the reader is not as well educated as them, and incorporate the use of words which anyone would be able to understand. For the writer, spending a little extra time on filtering out long words means that it is more likely that people read — or indeed finish — their article, which is the greatest honor for a writer.

Using simple words can also make you sound more authentic, especially in writing. Often times writers use complex words in their texts and justify their usage by saying that it makes the writing “flow better”. However, the writer would most likely not use those words if they were to be speaking to someone about that topic. It is easier for us to write complex words when we are writing because we don’t get any feedback until the article is published, at which point it is too late to change something because people will have already started to make their mind up about how complex it is. I would likely not use “orate” or “archaic” over “talk” and “old” when talking with others, because it makes me sound inauthentic. If you use simple words when you are writing, you sound more human, which makes people want to continue reading what you have written.

I can think of very few cases where using complex words are appropriate. Upon further reflection, many of the instances where people think that using complex words are warranted are actually artificial. For example, why should an academic study include complex words that do not relate specifically to the subject-matter (“tabulate” over “calculate”, or even better “added up”)? To use the example of civil law and paying parking tickets, many people are unable to understand the topic — even though it is such a critical part of our society — because of the complex words people use to describe it. In this case, how many more parking ticket claims would be resolved if more people could understand what they need to know, and what their attorney is saying to the judge (assuming you are in traffic court, that is)? Simple words make it easier for people to understand complex subjects.

There is no harm in using complex words on occasion, but, as aforementioned, it is very difficult to justify using long words as much as possible. Writers should make it as easy as possible for people to understand, interpret, and appreciate their texts. Over the last few months, I have realized the importance of using simple words, and have since tried to reduce the amount of complex words in favor of other words that people could understand more easily. Before I publish an essay, I think about whether I have used complex words in unnecessary situations, and replace them with shorter, and easier to understand words. A good rule for use if you want to use simpler words would be: take into account your target audience, and adopt your vocabulary to suit that group of people.

If more people read their work and spoke to them about their thoughts, the writer would likely be happier too. In sum, don’t use long words to show off. Use simple words.