In Defense of Big Words
| Peter Klein |
A cardinal rule of clear communication is never to use a long, obscure word or phrase when a shorter, more common one will do. Orwell thought this was of Brobdingnagian importance — sorry, a big deal — and Hemingway famously rebutted Faulkner’s critique of his writing style by pitying
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
Mencken, referring to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, says “[t]he prevalence of very short words in English, and the syntactial law which enables it to dispense with the definite article in many constructions . . . are further marks of vigor and clarity.” And of course we can all name scholars, even whole fields and genres, marked by particularly murky and obscure prose. (Question: Does academic jargon reform pass the remediableness criterion? LOL.)
However, according to a group of MIT linguists, as reported in Nature (via Azra Raza), big words often contain more information than their shorter counterparts, and word choice is mostly a function of information content:
For many years, linguists have tended to believe that the length of a word was associated with how often it was used, and that short words are used more frequently than long ones. This association was first proposed in the 1930s by the Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf.
Zipf believed that the relationship between word length and frequency of use stemmed from an impulse to minimize the time and effort needed for speaking and writing, as it means we use more short words than long ones. But Steven Piantadosi and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge say that, to convey a given amount of information, it is more efficient to shorten the least informative — and therefore the most predictable — words, rather than the most frequent ones. . . .
But after analyzing word use in 11 different European languages, Piantadosi and colleagues found that word length was more closely correlated with their information content than with how often they are used.