This topic was of particular interest to me because 1) I used to struggle with it, 2) I sometimes still do, and 3) I’ve always wondered what is so attractive about using gargantuan words. Why is it that we writers often feel the urge to use “fuzzy but important-sounding language”? Why are we often tempted “to impress rather than to communicate clearly”?
When I first realized that writing was something I really wanted to pursue, I thought the best way to go about crafting masterful prose was to grab a thesaurus and find the most complicated-sounding synonym for the simplest of words. Why say “used” when I could say “utilized”? Why say “walk” when I could say “ambulate” or “locomote”?
As I soon discovered, reading what I wrote was a royal pain – even for me, the author. Far from sounding “intellectual”, my prose sounded clumsy, jolting, and just plain weird. Forget a smoothly-paved highway – my reader would inevitably feel that he was on the bumpiest of dirt roads, with potholes the size of meteor-craters. Ouch.
Take, for instance, the following sentence:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
It’s a mouthful, isn’t it? And worse, it’s rather hard to understand. Would you like to know where it came from? I’ll tell you. That sentence is George Orwell’s deliberately turgid rewrite of one of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Simple, easy to understand, and yet profound. Does Orwell’s rewrite sound smarter? Would you, as an intelligent reader, prefer it? Speaking for myself, the answer is no.
Simply put, clearer is better. “… one hallmark of intellect is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.”
Now, that’s not to say we should be over-simple in our writing, for that is not the same as simplicity. We’re not talking about “See Spot Run” here, nor are we advocating the dumbing down of language. But as LaRoque points out, “simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, and interestingly clear.”
LaRoque asks us to consider some of the great speeches of history. Did Lincoln’s audience gripe about the simplicity and shortness of the Gettysburg address? Was Churchill wrong to say: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? Wouldn’t his intelligent listeners have preferred something like, “we shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?
“The way to credibility,” says LaRoque, “is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather.”
Good advice, to be sure. If only it were heeded more.
My writing is still far from perfect. But it’s certainly better than it used to be, and I hope it’s getting better. At any rate, I’m not helping things when I refuse to call a banana a banana, and instead call it “an elongated yellow fruit”.