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In school, I learned to use 10 cent words, so instead of saying: (updated: from a paper that says a scientist doing experiment with fish would make it complicated to say:)

All biota exhibited 100% mortality rate.

just say:

All fish died.

which is plain and simple, and gets the idea across, so that people understand what you are saying. But in the real world, time and time again, verbally or written, I see people higher up purposefully using $2 words, to convey that they are educated, and to convey they can use difficult words that you don't understand, and suggest possibly they can do things that other people cannot, so they have power over you (maybe to write something like that to the CEO or board of directors, and if you are against him, the board of director probably won't believe you or not on your side when you write something all with 10 cents words versus his $2 words every where).

So, was I too naive to believe "use 10 cent words"? The world may not be simply about "getting ideas across"? What might be an more accurate descriptions of "use of 10 cent words versus $2 words?"

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Mark Twain is always an inspiration to me at times like these: "The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it." "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."And finally, "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in." –  Sam May 10 '11 at 23:18
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@(whatever) Is this a serious question? Sure, using 'long words' validly marks you out as having at least average intelligence. Dumber people don't even know that many long words, and they certainly don't know how to use them properly in many cases. But — as I'm sure you're perfectly well aware — in the best communication, less is more. I suffer from prolixity, obviously, but I do my best. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 23:53
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@FumbleFingers: dumber people?? how nice. –  advs89 May 11 '11 at 0:21
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@advs89: I won't go so far as to say I'd let my daughter marry one, but I don't really have anything against dumber people. Undeniably some must be less bright than others, and there's a level at which this constrains their vocabulary. Would you have me pussy-foot around with euphemisms? Less able? Intellectually challenged? I could hardly avoid mentioning their existence, since it was central to my point. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 0:34
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"Dumber"? I can't believe this conversation has gotten this far - in an English Language Usage forum, no less. I'm sure there are plenty of people in the world who are much more intelligent than those participating in this silly discussion, but who have a less developed vocabulary. –  mickeyf May 11 '11 at 13:55

13 Answers 13

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It depends on your motives. Are you trying to impress or are you trying to communicate?

As phenry noted, people who use the $2 words are trying to impress, usually both themselves and someone else. Sometimes playing politics is necessary if you want to advance. Many are not even aware that they are not communicating. They try so hard to be impressive that they fail to be useful. Unfortunately, if the rest of the people around them are the same, only those who impress will advance.

If you want to communicate, write as simply as possible, but no simpler. Know your audience, and write to them.

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... no simpler ... Some $2 words may be fatuous attempts to impress the hoi polloi. But others may be words used in a technical sense for other specialists that you are talking to. –  GEdgar Dec 14 '13 at 14:44

In my world, I have no concept of words having value or beneficial qualities accorded to their length. What matters is using the best word in a given context.

As you note in your question above, register is paramount to word selection. It is up to the language user to develop a sense of what is correct and "normal" in any given situation.

Indeed, hewing to a preference for short, simple words is to render a judgement that all of one's readers are dull, uneducated plebeians - unwashed hoi polloi - who must be addressed perforce as children, with grammar-school vocabulary.

On the contrary, as William Buckley observes in his Lexicon, the taxonomy of English allows the gifted writer to amaze and delight his or her readers with occasional surprises, glimpses of the unusual, and suggestions for vocabulary improvement.

Also, different words mean different things. It is more often than not the case that a short word press-ganged into a longer one's service may miss the mark by a nuanced degree. For example:

The curator enjoined me to follow him.

Here, you cannot replace the boldface word with "asked" and preserve the meaning of the original in its entirety. Simply say what you mean and use the most precise language available to you in keeping with the appropriate register expected by your readers.

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it is true that if it is a novel, "enjoin" can be too abstract, and it would be better to use his action and words to depict what's happening -- the "show but don't tell" rule. I guess in a novel writing, there is no power struggle between the author and the readers. There actually might be more readers if they feel that they are on the same level of the author, or feel more emerged in his world (in the novel), rather than to be put down at a lower level. –  動靜能量 May 10 '11 at 23:07
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by the way, not just length, but how difficult or common the words are. –  動靜能量 May 10 '11 at 23:10
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In the case of a novel, this would be arguably perfect. A curator is a scholar, often among the best in a given field, and "enjoin" here reflects professional station, while setting a formal tone befitting the speech-act in question and the power dynamics at play in the relationship. This kind of economy in prose is what proper word selection allows you to do. –  The Raven May 10 '11 at 23:24
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I think I agree with thursdaysgeek's answer that it is more of a person's motive -- you said use the world your reader most expect, and that must be from a kind author (or just to go with the natural flow), but in this case, it is still the motive of the author. A lot of people I found, their motive is self-interest, and they use the $2 word to impress or to force the power onto the readers. It is still the author's motive. So motive is the key, at least at this point in life I do think so. –  動靜能量 Oct 7 '11 at 23:14
    
@TheRaven, You cited that the use of big words has 3 advantages. Do you mind elaborating more on them? 1) Regarding the advantage of "occasional surprises".. What kind of surprise do you mean (any examples)? Is this "surprise" merely the surprise of the presence of the big word? 2) Also, –  Pacerier Apr 16 at 14:50
  • Rule 1: Don't use a $2 word where a 10 cent word will do.
  • Rule 2: Don't use a 10 cent word where a 10 cent word won't do.

In other words, don't use long or obscure words purely for the sake of it - but don't hesitate to use them where they convey a particular meaning or nuance better than the alternatives.

Context is also important: in a novel (or other creative/descriptive writing) it is often more appropriate to use more varied, colourful language than in, for example, a set of instructions (where simplicity and clarity are paramount).

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The only reason to pay for words, whether 10 cents or 2 dollars, is to buy clarity. If "biota" is the word that comes to your mind quickest, it is likely to be transparent to a listening fellow biologist. Replacing it with "all the fish and plankton" is counterproductive ("Why did he not mention the coelenterata?").

If, though, you are trying to be clear to someone who is not familiar with the jargon, you have to rummage for exactly the right string of cheap words that adds up to precisely the cost of the single word you might otherwise use.

I also want to mention @Mitch's point about vocabulary serving a "gatekeeper" role. A single word can be a wonderfully brief way to cut short the preliminaries of a conversation -- "Yes, let's talk about cnidarians..."

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In my opinion, words do not have an intrinsic value. It all depends on who you are talking to and what you are trying to say.

When I was a teenager, we used to avoid complex words and sentences, although we were able to use them, because we were afraid of sounding pretentious or intellectual. We had to sound "cool", but at the same time we were limiting ourselves to a very little subset of our rich language. This was in French, but I think that your question isn't really language specific.

Today, I am not afraid to mix slang, short expressions and complex sentences when it serves the purpose of the discussion. Languages are such a beautiful resource, I prefer to ignore these restrictions. According to the context and the interlocutor, there a certain limits of course. I respect them, but I like to experiment with them, to digress a bit when it seems possible.

In other terms, I don't play reggae, I don't play rock, funk, or another narrow genre. I just do music.

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I often return to Orwell on this topic:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon number.

I can't do the essay "Politics and the English Language" justice from this one quote -- you should definitely read the whole thing. While I don't think that one should always choose the Anglo-Saxon derived word over the Latin or Greek derivation, I do think that it puts forth the idea that there is something wrongly assumed about the anti-intellectual nature of shorter Anglo-Saxon derived words.

You should not feel that simplicity of expression or word choice detracts in any way from the points you are trying to get across.

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"You should not feel that simplicity of expression or word choice detracts in any way from the points you are trying to get across." This doesn't hold if you are trying to convey complex ideas. Simple words are for simple people and simple ideas. For example, "Coke tastes good. I like Coke. Drink Coke." There you go - simple words, simple ideas, perfect for simple people. If you want to engage in philosophy, you're going to need more firepower. –  The Raven May 11 '11 at 2:37
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@The Raven: I disagree. Simple words are not only for simple people and simple ideas. –  Colin Fine May 11 '11 at 11:31
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@The Raven I think very complex ideas can be communicated with great simplicity. What came to mind was Wittgenstein's opening to the Tractatus "The world is all that is the case" (Sorry, I can't quote the German - hopefully it is just as clean and simple.) –  gbutters May 12 '11 at 13:49
    
I'm not saying that all philosophy is like this. Certainly there is a lot convoluted philosophical writing out there. Perhaps the complexity is warranted, but I think that philosophers are clear and rational enough to not deliberately cloak their work in arcane terms for the sake of sounding profound. –  gbutters May 12 '11 at 13:57

If you're a good writer, you don't need 2-dollar words. If you're not a good writer, 2-dollar words won't help.

It's true, many powerful people and higher-ups like to use 2-dollar words when they write, perhaps because they feel insecure about the quality of their writing, or because they have been taught that simple, clear wording is inappropriate for discussing highly complex or technical subjects. In my experience, even people who write that way much prefer to read clear, well-written content written in simple, terse language, rather than stuff written the way they write.

That said, there are certain highly dysfunctional fields (law and academia spring to mind) where turgid, unnatural prose is actually prized, so as always the number 1 rule is "know your audience."

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aha, "what they prefer" might not be the same as "what they will do" or "what they prefer to do", as everybody in the world wants to eat other living organisms (animals or plants), but no one in the world wants to be eaten. –  動靜能量 May 10 '11 at 23:11
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Actually, your first sentence is not quite correct. I would say that if you're a good writer, you know when to use a $2 word. –  staticsan May 11 '11 at 1:32
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The line "If you're a good writer, you don't need 2-dollar words. If you're not a good writer, 2-dollar words won't help." -- I actually used to believe in something like this, until later, that I found it is almost the same as "If you keep a good inner self, don't worry about your outside beauty" -- people can say that, but I found that while you may want to be "higher up" and don't judge a book by its cover, the majority of other people judge you by shallow observations. –  動靜能量 May 12 '11 at 4:48
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@staticsan, The first sentence is correct. If you're a good writer, you know when to use $2 words, even though you don't need $2 words. Those two points aren't mutually exclusive. –  Pacerier Apr 16 at 15:04

I see people higher up purposefully using $2 words, to convey that they are educated, and to convey they can use difficult words that you don't understand, and suggest possibly they can do things that other people cannot, so they have power over you [...]

Signalling, in the economic sense and the biological sense, is pervasive. People somehow have to communicate things like “I am smart and competent” other than by merely saying so, which would hardly be credible. We use language obliquely to send these signals. Not only managers. All of us.

Conspicuously using $2 words is not something a lot of people do. I can’t recommend it. It can come across as pretentious and even comically pathetic. Conspicuous plain talk probably appeals to more people. (Ask any recent plain-talking Yale- or Harvard-educated President of the United States.)

What bosses are actually looking for—all bosses except the very worst ones—is success. $2 words are in no way a decent signal of that. You can stick to your guns and win, if you’re competent... and if winning is what you’re after.

So, was I too naive to believe "use 10 cent words"? The world may not be simply about "getting ideas across"? What's your opinion?

Language is indeed about getting ideas across, but not always the particular ideas that the dictionary definitions of the words might suggest. See Stephen Pinker’s TED talk about language and thought (particularly around 10:25). You can dislike this phenomenon, but you’ll be happier if you can learn to love it.

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I think professors at Harvard or the President of the United States already know they have a lot of power (or the top power), so they don't have to use $2 words. More often I found it may be the boss who knows he is not as good as you technically or he is not really doing that great a job, that he has to force this power onto you to let you know he has more power than you. –  動靜能量 Jun 24 '13 at 0:12

...I see people higher up purposefully using $2 words, to convey that they are educated, and to convey they can use difficult words that you don't understand, and suggest possibly they can do things that other people cannot, so they have power over you.

Though this is a very legitimate complaint and is definitely how such usage by others can be perceived, I don't think it is the primary motivation of the speaker:

  • for technical situations (law, mathematics, engineering, medicine) it is jargon, specialized stipulated vocabulary. It ends up being a gatekeeper, but the intention is for technical precision for communication. The other side of that is that it ends up only usable by the technicians, keeping out non-technicians.

  • for daily conversation, yes, there are certainly aspects of word choice that can be attributed to emotional motivations (trying to overcome feelings of inferiority by the speaker, or to establish superiority). But rarer words also have a tendency to have narrower semantics, less vague implications which will communicate intention more exactly, and that is often the intention of the speaker, to be more precise. What is missed by the speaker is that the rare word may not be understood well (it is rare), and so counter to intention come off as more vague.

So I think it depends on the audience. Rarer $2 words will be more precise but are more likely to be misunderstood. Ten cent words will tend to be understood by everybody, but are not as precise. If your audience is more technical, using 10 cent words will look like you don't know the subject area. If your audience is general, $2 words might obfuscate...er might ..um... make things harder to understand.

I think it is possible to communicate deep ideas with fewer syllables or Latin roots, but sometimes it is more efficient to use a single word than a roundabout translation into a sentence.

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"The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." -- Mark Twain 1888 –  GEdgar Jun 24 '13 at 14:08
    
@GEdgar, It's not. How is "lightning bug" almost the right word for "lightning"? It's the completely wrong word. –  Pacerier Apr 16 at 14:59

In school, I learned to use 10 cent words, so instead of saying:

All biota exhibited 100% mortality rate.

just say:

All fish died.

which is plain and simple, and gets the idea across, so that people understand what you are saying.

Preferring only "simple" words does not necessarily lead to better writing. However, the ability to convey a complex idea, simply, does. The trouble is not with the $2 words or the 10 cents ones, it is with the communicator. It is by knowing who the target reader is and possessing a greater awareness of one's language that allows a communicator to confidently choose which word is more appropriate each and every time. Hence using your examples, the first "technical" sentence will be appropriate in a scientific field whereas the second ("All the fish died.") will be better suited for a wider audience, for example a tabloid magazine article.

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Yes you should use them. Complex ideas can still be conveyed with simple words; just listen to the band Tool some time.

Insecure puffery will always be sussed out by perceptive audiences.

Otherwise, use All the arsenal at your disposal as if you were the head chef creating an interesting dish for a client at one of your tables:

Make the 10 cent words the food,

and the $2 words the salt.

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Salt makes food taste good (and encourages preservation). What's the intrinsic use of salting words? Most people find it untasty, exactly what's the reason for using them? Is it to impress? –  Pacerier Apr 16 at 15:08

So, was I too naive to believe "use 10 cent words"?

Yes, that was ridiculous.

The world may not be simply about "getting ideas across"?

If you delete the "may" we then have a true sentence:

The world has nothing to do with "getting ideas across".

As Napoleon said: "The world is about getting power, nothing else."

The world is about making money, marrying an attractive spouse and having many children, and creating useful new technologies to improve human lives via the money generated from advertising and marketing. There's nothing else.

If you work in an entirely commercial field (like writing novels or magazine articles) just do whatever makes more money for the market in question.

(If your audience is the pretentious type that prefers elegant, "country cottage" language - use that. If your audience is normal working people who want a bit of posh so they feel they are actually getting value - use $25 words.)

If you're in a "game" system, such as academia where the point is to impress a certain group of peers: just use whatever is trendy and most-appreciated this year.

What might be an more accurate descriptions of the use of 10 cent words versus $2 words?

Know Your Audience.

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I suppose, if I am writing in general, then it depends on what kind of a world I live in (which changes from the 80s to the 90s, to the 2010s). But then again, it can be if I am in a city, it is a different version of a "world" if I drive 30 minutes to another city, or maybe if I just walk 10 blocks in one direction in a city, it could be a different world. –  動靜能量 Oct 18 at 8:45
    
This is quite true. Everyone lives in entirely different worlds. Very different worlds. –  Joe Blow Oct 18 at 8:59
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"The world world has..."? And If I marry an "attractive spouse" wouldn't that mean I am marrying someone else's spouse? Think about it. You then contradict Napoleon's phrase by stating that the world is about wealth, getting married and having children. By highlighting useful new technologies it appears/looks like you are saying this is an important factor when in fact you are not. A very contradictory cynical and clichè answer. –  Mari-Lou A 2 days ago
    
"A very contradictory cynical and clichè answer." Awesome! –  Joe Blow yesterday

Ten cent words are actually the words you are warning against. It means a long term that you fished out of a thesaurus to replace a simple word to make yourself sound more sophistocated.

No such thing as a two dollar word.

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'Sesquipedalian' sounds good to me. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sesquipedalian –  Michael Owen Sartin Dec 14 '13 at 20:03

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