General Writing

Vocabulary Gingerbread

I would have thought that George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” said everything about the importance of clarity in writing that is necessary to say. However, Orwell wrote seventy-two years ago, and his examples of bad writing seem dated today. Consequently, many people today have never read “Politics.” Even would-be writers often believe that the key to writing well is to expand their vocabulary — not to learn how to express themselves more precisely, but as an ornament like the gingerbread along the eaves of a Victorian house.

For those who have never read “Politics,” the essay takes the position that the purpose of writing is to communicate effectively. According to Orwell, any writing that helps that goal is worth developing, while any that interferes with that goal should be avoided, and is probably due to an additional motive, either to obscure an opinion or to impress readers. To aid in communication, “Politics” suggests these basic rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules are more flexible than they may appear at first glance. In particular, notice that Orwell does not suggest always replacing a long word for a short one — only when the short one will do. For example, in many cases, “big” serves well enough, but if you want to suggest largeness so exaggerated as to be humorous, “gargantuan” is more exact.

Orwell’s emphasis on clarity has always seemed common sense to me, perhaps because I worked for several years as a technical writer, whose job was to give steps in a procedure so that readers could understand a task and successfully carry it out without any danger. So far as vocabulary goes, it implies that the purpose of knowing a lot of words is to improve your clarity.

In contrast to Orwell, modern schools tend to teach vocabulary as an end itself. Students are marked for knowing the meaning of a word, rather than for using a word effectively, a practice that makes for easy marking, but does nothing to educate. Instead, people come away from school with the belief that a large vocabulary is the secret of writing well. If students are learning English as a second languge, this belief may be justified, because their vocabulary may be genuinely limited. However, even when the attitude makes sense, what students come away with is the conviction that the purpose of writing is to impress with their knowledge. Even when students remember their vocabulary drills, the knowledge does little good, because the purpose of communication is obscured.

In extreme cases, this basic purpose is lost altogether to aspiring writing. A large vocabulary, some writers insist, is part of their style, and to suggest that they change it (even for legitimate reasons) is nothing less than an attack on their freedom of expression. Implicit in this belief is that their style is precious, and the most important part of their writing — more important, even, than communicating with readers. On Facebook groups, I have even hear writers claim that, by using large words, they provide some sort of service by educating readers, as though their readers (often theoretical, at this point) clamored to be educated while reading.

Some even become more arrogant. Told that their purpose is to communicate, or adjust their vocabulary to suit the audience, some writers explode. They talk about how they are being asked to “dumb down” and sooner or later, words like “pander” or “prostitute” are apt to come into the discussion. So far as I can understand, they do not feel any obligation to reach out to readers. Instead, readers are supposed to come to them, while they stand by to receive worship and gaps of wonder.

I suggest that these motives are as corrupt as they could possibly be. Far from developing any style worth writing or admiring, the writers who holds them are seriously hampering any chance of developing into successful writers. After all, if you start by despising your readers, how can you hope to ever catch their attention? The chances are, would-be readers will sense your arrogance, and walk away from the unsung genius contained in your work.

Far from dumbing down, to be aware of readers and to write to the appropriate audience are skills that are far more challenging than spicing your writing with long or obscure words. As Isaac Asimov, another champion of simple language, once observed, stain glass has existed since classical times, but clear glass is only a couple of centuries old, and the product of an advanced technology.

Instead of defending your precious style, try to write more effectively. You will only increase your chances of publication if you do.

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