One might argue that to be as understandable as possible, one should use common words and phrases. On the other hand, unnecessary verbosity is often frowned upon.

Stop acting so childish and sulky!

Stop acting so petulant!

Should a common and verbose phrase be favored over an uncommon single word in writing? What about speech?

closed as not constructive by simchona, Marthaª, kiamlaluno, aedia λ, Mitch Oct 12 '11 at 21:46

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  • 'Should' is kind of weird here (at SE sites). Brevity and clarity are independent (which means they often overlap. It all depends on what you want. – Mitch Oct 12 '11 at 21:47

There's no simple yes or no answer to that question.

In general, I avoid using words that I think my intended audience is unlikely to understand. If that means a longer, explanatory phrase, so be it. Of course that depends on context. When speaking to a group of engineers I will freely use technical terms that I would not use when speaking to a general audience. When speaking to adults I will use more sophisticated words than when speaking to children. Etc.


Since one of the reasons to write is to communication and communication is the process of transferring ideas from one person to another, why would you not prefer clarity?

Of course, that assumes communications as a goal. Some people make an art out of using words specifically not to communicate and some use words only as a way to show off their intelligence.

As for the style guide, I agree that needless words should be omitted, but never at the cost of clarity.

  • I've often noticed that people tend to have one of two apparent motivations in writing: (a) To make an idea as clear to the reader as possible; or (b) To impress the reader with how smart the author must be to understand such a complicated subject. I can't count how many times things I've written at the office have been edited to change "use" to "utilize" and "idea" to "paradigm", light or whimsical examples deleted or rewritten, etc, in order to make the document "sound more professional". – Jay Oct 17 '11 at 19:16

I try to keep in mind this dictum from The Elements of Style:

13. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

  • One can read into this section that the advice is stated in full with the admonition "Omit needless words", but then the following paragraph elaborates unnecessarily, underscoring the initial point. (While this was probably not ol' Bill's intent, adding a dash of humor makes reading the Elements much better, in my opinion.) – aedia λ Oct 12 '11 at 18:35
  • Heh heh. This reviewer was less kind: "The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar." "Make every word tell" is how I remember the guideline anyway... – Gnawme Oct 12 '11 at 18:51
  • I believe that same book also recommends to choose the more common word when faced with two equal ones. – Maxpm Oct 12 '11 at 19:45
  • "a machine no unnecessary parts" - though some machines and systems do have redundant parts in case of failure, the same way you could include redundant words to make sure the meaning gets across. – Hugo Oct 12 '11 at 21:01
  • When I first read Strunk & White and came across the statement, "Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words!" my first thought was, "Why did he write it twice?" – Jay Oct 17 '11 at 19:11

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