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MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Do you think you shouldn't use a big word where a small one will suffice?

Asked by MyNewtBoobs (18935 points ) February 21st, 2011

Or do you feel you shouldn’t use a small word where a big one will suffice?

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81 Answers

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

My preference is to use the smallest word that will still adequately express your thought.

WasCy's avatar

Notwithstanding my personal and overriding predilection for obfuscation and bloviation, and being unwilling to disabuse you of this notion, I concur.

picante's avatar

An articulation of unparalleled disambiguity, WasCy.

janbb's avatar

Use the word that you feel the most comfortably fits you and the job at hand. In this case alone, size doesn’t matter.

Kardamom's avatar

I think that you shouldn’t purposely use a great big $3 word unless that word is the exact word that you need and no other word has that specific meaning (with all the nuances). That’s why I’m always looking at the thesaurus to see if there is a better word than the one I thought up in the first place, but sometimes I don’t find a better word. So I guess what I’m saying is use the right word for the right occasion, but give it some thought.

Coloma's avatar

Yes, I’d say use the word that FEELS right.
I’m a verbose type, infact, I just bought a book called ’ write tight’...need I say more? haha

thorninmud's avatar

“Suffice” is a pretty low standard, maybe better suited to emails, texts and tweets. For the wider range of human expression, I’d rather steer away from rules that would lead us even further down the path of paucity. Words need to be trotted out for admiration every now and then or they wither from neglect. In the ongoing natural selection that evolves language, size seems too arbitrary an attribute to determine survival.

Hearing the same words over and over again is deadly dull. The more words in regular circulation, the better.

Besides, seeing text larded with pretentious words is a useful indicator that one is dealing with a pedant. That’s good to know.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@thorninmud And when you find out that someone is a pedant, your initial reaction is…?

thorninmud's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs I give him the secret handshake

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@thorninmud You know that by “big” I don’t actually mean number of letters, but rather complexity (ie likelihood to appear on the SAT vocab section…), right?

thorninmud's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Yes, but it does make me sad to think that so many of the words we’d now consider “big” used to appear in books read by children not so long ago.

ETpro's avatar

If a big word and a small word both express what you are trying to say equally wll, always opt for the small word. More people will be able to read what you wrote and understand its meaning.

Now, I could have written ”...grab its meaning.” instead of ”...understand its meaning.” But the bigger word better captures what I am trying to say than “grab” or “grasp” or “get: would do. So there, by all means, use the more appropriate word.

Some complex subjects such as quantum physics or epistomology would descend to the near incomprehensible if you limited the discussion of them to one or two syllable words only.

Zaku's avatar

Sometimes.

thorninmud's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Here are a few I just plucked from Alice in Wonderland:

Caucus
Melancholy
Antipathies
Inquisitively
Usurpation
Adjourn

ucme's avatar

Exactly what the wife says, why use a big one when you can use a small one…..... Err….but….hang on a minute, there’s something not quite right here. Ooh, i’m proper discombobulated now :¬(

flutherother's avatar

A word is a word, but the small ones are more couthy.

everephebe's avatar

I don’t know, I die inside when someone says, “oh that’s a big word,” for a two syllable and fairly commonplace word. I like using words, big and small. If the most accurate verbiage is something long and with a rather difficult meaning (or especially archaic usage) , then I still implement. And if I see a wrinkle of confusion on their face, I use other increasingly less apt words till the wrinkle vanishes. But then I can be mildly circumloquacious at times. See what I’m trying to say is, I don’t prefer to use big words, I prefer to use gargantuan, colossal, behemoth words when I can and know them (motive and opportunity). I like to juxtapose my idiocy alongside my wit, you comprehend. Fake it till you make it.

@MyNewtBoobs My answer is no.

everephebe's avatar

@ucme You’re setting yourself up for a, “That what she said joke.”

Foolaholic's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Personally, I agree. I try to be simple and concise. However, sometimes when writing dialog, I have characters who use an excessive vocabulary. I think it’s a personality choice, and definitely an interesting style to try and fabricate.

ucme's avatar

@everephebe That was my intention yes :¬)

Jeruba's avatar

I think you should go for precision when precision matters, no matter how big the word, but you should also know your audience.

The length of a single word means nothing. An illiterate person doesn’t know if you’re speaking one five-syllable word or five one-syllable words. Many common words are long:
• television
• advertisement
• Superbowl
and many common phrases are much longer than supposedly highfalutin words:
• anti-lock brake system
• rack-and-pinion steering
• electronic fuel-injection system
• catalytic converter.
The real issue is commonness. And that has nothing to do with length. Many people want you to stay within the limits of an eighth-grade vocabulary and think you’re putting them down if you don’t. Personally, I prefer to talk to people who aren’t quite so easily discomfited.

Ultimately your choice of words represents you by clothing your thoughts in much the same way that your choice of attire represents you. It shows something of who you are, what you think of yourself, and what you think of others around you and of the occasion you’re dressing for, and it displays your taste and sensibilities. Sometimes you dress up, and sometimes you go casual. It’s nice to have a choice.

Kardamom's avatar

@Jeruba That phrase, “clothing your thoughts” is wonderful!

Joker94's avatar

Depends. I usually adhere to the “Never use an ace if a two will do.” idea, though…when it comes to essay writing, though, bigger is always better ;]

wundayatta's avatar

Whatever word comes to mind. If it’s a big word (whatever that is), I’m grateful that my memory can still pull it out of the old cerebellum. I suspect that it will not be too long before I am a blithering idiot, so please don’t take away my words before they have to go.

Brian1946's avatar

Affirmative! ;-)

ETpro's avatar

”@http://www.fluther.com/113152/do-you-think-you-shouldnt-use-a-big-word-where-a/#quip1853909“MyNewtBoobs I don’t see where there is a significant difference between big as in multisyllabic and big as in likelihood to show up on an SAT test. But if your OP was about words specifically on an SAT test as opposed to ones that are not typpically listed there, it would have been helpful to tell us that.

Kardamom's avatar

@wundayatta One of my friends has an iphone and I’m constantly asking him to look up words for me, because they’re on the tip of my tongue. I tease him that the only thing those phones are good for is looking up words and for proving that my trivial piece of information is correct.

morphail's avatar

No, I should think you should use the right word.

@Jeruba, I guess you meant “An illiterate person doesn’t know if you’re writing one five-syllable word or five one-syllable words” right?

Jeruba's avatar

@morphail, no. I mean that an illiterate person is not drawing a correlation between a spoken expression and the way it’s written, so length of a single word has no significance.

I’ve often thought of this when a small child uses a lengthy word and some condescending adult remarks, “My, that’s a big word.” My three-year-old said “elephant”? So what? He can also say “I want a cookie,” and isn’t that a five-syllable word?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@ETpro No, it wasn’t specifically about SAT tests, but rather that “big words” colloquially means “complex and uncommon” – words that make you go running for the dictionary. I often hear students complain about “big words”, meaning words they don’t know or use. Myriad was one such word, which would be a “big word” despite only having 6 letters (and it is a top 100 SAT word).

@everephebe See, that’s why I say the smallest that will still accurately convey your meaning – I have no interest in loosing any of the complexity or nuances of the idea. However, I really can’t stand it when I’m reading a book, and every sentence has at least one word I’m not very familiar with, and seems constructed in a manner so that instead of easily conveying an idea (which requires some flow of thought), you spend all your time looking up words and trying to figure out what that last sentence means instead of getting the larger idea. Plus, I think it’s often used as a way to discriminate against the less educated, poorer echelons of society, like a form of educational discrimination.

morphail's avatar

@Jeruba I see. That’s pretty interesting. In linguistics the question of what a word is is very complicated and there are a lot of different answers. http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/message-details1.cfm?AsklingID=200335729

bob_'s avatar

Indeed.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

Yes.
“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. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice”
– Mark Twain in a letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

Ahhhh,one more Mark Twain quote for you….
I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.”
– Simplified Spelling speech, 1906
;)

everephebe's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs I enjoy running to the dictionary, if a book doesn’t make me do that occasionally, I rather not read it (I’m not including children’s books in this instance). However, I don’t like it when the text is pointlessly complex, vague or overly descriptive. Techno jargon loses me quickly when it assumes (I’m stupid if) I (don’t) know exactly all of the acronyms in existence. I think there is a big difference between talking and writing, and also what one likes to read and what one likes to write.

When you said:
“Plus, I think it’s often used as a way to discriminate against the less educated, poorer echelons of society, like a form of educational discrimination.”

I had to disagree here, now that there is the internet, you can look up all these words very quickly, so if you don’t understand something you can ask google, or whoever is talking. If people use words that easy and simple and dumb down to the lowest common denominator then no one will learn these big words. I learn big words because I bump into them, I’m not that bright, but I’m clever enough to ask questions and look things up. Someone once called me a pedant, and I asked what that was. It was a great moment because they got egg on their face by explaining what it meant and I learned a new word.

I wish most of what was written was condensed into perfectly concise beautifully poetic sentences that communicated the most clear message with the fewest words. To me it doesn’t matter the size of the word, rather, the length of the document.

I have to say, I adore this line from Winnie the Pooh:
“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” -A.A. Milne

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@everephebe Let me clarify – I don’t think using a few is discrimination. I think using so many, so frequently, that all but the elite will be discouraged from reading it can be used as discrimination (although the more recent something is, the less likely that is). And because it’s often the texts before Google that do it, it worked more when they were published.

everephebe's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Ah, I see. I think I know what you mean: pompous uber-elite mother-fuckers who do nothing but show off. Yeah I don’t like that either.

janbb's avatar

OOh, ooh, ooh – Can I be a pompous uber-elite mother-fucker who does nothing but show off? Can I, can I, can I?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@everephebe Really, it’s basically any college textbook written before 1995, or any college textbook thereafter that states ‘we’re making this extra hard to read in order to expand your vocab, you college students, and we’re sure you would never put off reading it till right before the paper is due’ (true story).

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@janbb Asking “can I” implies that you aren’t already ;D

janbb's avatar

Let me not obfuscate about cogitating upon that pronouncement.

everephebe's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs I never had trouble with any of the words my textbooks per se, but that’s probably because I never took any challenging subjects or went to a decent school. However some of the language in textbooks is very hard to penetrate, it’s like ok… What are you trying to say? In english this time, please.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@everephebe Lol. I think of it as the difference between adding a couple pinches of black pepper to your Thanksgiving gallon of mashed potatoes, and adding a cup of black pepper to that same amount. One flavors and enhances, the other makes it uneatable.

Jeruba's avatar

@everephebe

> In english this time, please

I just have to say that that comment, which I’ve heard far too many times in my life, pushes my button so bad that I have to leave this thread now. English isn’t just the little words.

everephebe's avatar

@Jeruba, I’m not talking about word size (at all), rather I’m talking about word usage. If the language of a text is overly dense, I feel overly dense reading it.

Big words I love, too many words used to say one simple thing… Not so much lurve for.

everephebe's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs, yeah too much pepper runs a dish. What’s the big deal with salt and pepper anyway? :D

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Jeruba If you are still following – is there a phrase with the same base meaning that you prefer? I’m sure both of us would love to happen upon a new phrase.

Haleth's avatar

@Jeruba Well-said. “Clothing your thoughts” is such a lovely turn of phrase.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?…The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now.” -1984

bob_'s avatar

In the interest of short words: lawls, drama!

SavoirFaire's avatar

Indubitably.

everephebe's avatar

On a related note: I think SMS is a crime against language. Furthermore, I think even @Jeruba would say, “in English please,” for that.

absalom's avatar

In most cases you should use the right word and disregard how long or difficult or obscure it is. ‘Small’ and ‘big’ are criteria so vague as to be almost meaningless.

I find that many who discourage the use of esoteric (or ‘big’) words don’t appreciate (or know) the pleasure of using such words.

And what does it mean to say that a word ‘suffices’? This is also undefined in your question. I could go to the supermarket and purchase my dinner by pointing and grunting at a cut of steak, and that would ‘suffice’. It would be an unusual but sufficient expression of my desire to eat food. In a way it might even be the most honest expression of my desire. But do you do this when you go to the supermarket? Why don’t you?

If we spoke / wrote only with words that ‘suffice’ then English would be a language of indistinct meanings, and words like ‘small’ and ‘big’ would come to be used by lazy writers to mean things they don’t really mean. (Sorry.)

I don’t want a word that suffices, and I don’t want my speech or writing to be merely adequate. I want it to be perfect and precise – which it never is and never will be, but there’s no harm in trying.

Odysseus's avatar

Use the ‘big’ word ! Don t be dumbed down by Newspeak

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? – Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four

DominicX's avatar

This question should’ve been: “Do you think you shouldn’t utilize a big word where a small one will suffice?”

Sorry, I just really hate the word “utilize”. It has the exact same meaning as “use” and in most cases of its usage it can be replaced by “use” and it also seems that in most cases, people are only “utilizing” it because it’s bigger and thus sounds “smarter”.

But yes, I agree with @absalom on this one. Use the appropriate word and disregard the length. Many “bigger” words are used incorrectly when people attempt to replace “smaller” words with them. Let’s face it—if your motive for using a word is to “sound smarter”, there’s a good chance it’s not the right word for you anyhow.

morphail's avatar

Hold on, the question here has nothing to do with the length of words, so SMS is not relevant. And it has nothing to do with Newspeak. The question is about scholarly register or technical jargon – I think, the OP has not provided any examples. Should we use a word from a scholarly or technical register when we don’t have to?

Odysseus's avatar

@morphail , where did you read this extra information regarding the question ?

morphail's avatar

@Odysseus where the OP wrote “You know that by “big” I don’t actually mean number of letters, but rather complexity (ie likelihood to appear on the SAT vocab section…), right?”

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Odysseus Newspeak is aimed at limiting the ability of people to think. I said nothing about dumbing things down, or reducing the complexity or nuances of an issue, nor about eliminating the existence of big words, but rather about refraining from using complex words to describe a simple idea, especially to the point of weighing down the work. If you can use “utilize” and “use” in exactly the same fashion, and they both mean exactly the same thing in your context, but by using “utilize” you will make a good portion of your readers stop and look up the word, then you have failed in your duty as a writer to effectively communicate; you have forced your readers to see the trees in lieu of the forest.

@morphail Do you actually need examples?

SavoirFaire's avatar

Serious answer this time.

In general, I agree with @absalom‘s answer. That said, I think words like “ossify” are probably appropriate less often than some people think. Just because you know the word and it fits in your sentence does not make it appropriate. If you are trying to clarify something, jargon is to be avoided. If you’re teaching kindergarten, SAT words are to be avoided. Choosing the “right word” depends as much on context as it does on what you are trying to say.

morphail's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs yes of course, examples are always awesome.

@DominicX “utilize” doesn’t mean “use”. It means “make useful” or “convert to use”.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@SavoirFaire I get the feeling you’re suggesting you actually run into the word “ossify” rather regularly.

@morphail Myriad, cacophony, abhor, brusque, vindicate… Is that good?

DominicX's avatar

@morphail

Use, definition 1: to employ for some purpose; to put into service; to make use of

Sounds like the same thing to me.

morphail's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs ok, well maybe I’m the wrong person to ask, because I don’t have a problem with any of those words. But to really judge if they’re appropriate, we need to see them in context.

@DominicX According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the most common usage of “utilize” is “turn to practical use or account”. “Utilize is a distinct word having distinct implications. More than use, it suggests a deliberate decision or effort to employ something (or someone) for a practical purpose. Its greatest sins are that it has two more syllables than use and that it ends with the dreaded -ize. It is a common word, nevertheless, and every indication is that it will continue to be one.”

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@morphail It’s a broad question for you to answer as you see fit. Not asking if you understand the words, but rather if you prefer it one way or another.

DominicX's avatar

@morphail

It’s not that “utilize” can replace all or most instances of the word “use” (such as “to use drugs”. In that case “utilize” wouldn’t work). But I’d be willing to bet that the opposite is true; that “use” can replace all or most instances of the word “utilize”.

morphail's avatar

@DominicX What you are willing to bet is true is just what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says isn’t true.

DominicX's avatar

@morphail

And I’m not saying they’re lying; but I’d like to see some examples where “use” cannot replace “utilize” and carry the same meaning.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Heard it just this morning, in fact. Not sure it was appropriate for the audience. Poor undergraduates—they were stuck watching someone show off while he was supposed to be clarifying.

morphail's avatar

@DominicX Did you read the entry I linked to? They give some examples.

Odysseus's avatar

I too regard the words utlilise and use as different words.
I certainly wouldnt ulilise (utilize) drugs.
I should however utilise all the spare wood and materials I have in my yard to create a Wendy house and will probably need to use a hammer.

DominicX's avatar

@morphail

Ah, yes. I still think that the word “use” works in those cases. If there is a difference, it’s so subtle it’s negligible. Still, “utilize” definitely means “make practical use of” as opposed to “use” meaning simply “to make use of”. Right there however you don’t have much difference.

@Odysseus

But what’s wrong with saying “I should however use all the spare wood and materials I have in my yard to create…” It means the same thing, does it not?

Odysseus's avatar

@DominicX
Not to me. I use the Oxford English dictionary and the first definition of Utilize is “To make or render useful utilize, v.

Also -ise.
[ad. F. utiliser (1792), ad. It. utilizzare (1760), f. utile utile a.: see -ize, and cf. Sp. utilizar, Pg. -isar.]

1.1 trans. To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
   Rare before 1858. ‘Utilize is fast antiquating improve, in the sense of “turn to account”’ (1873 F. Hall Mod. Eng. 167).

2.2 intr. To make oneself of use. rare—1.

Whereas ‘use’ has a different definition.

DominicX's avatar

@Odysseus

And one of the definitions of “use” is “to make use of”. I just don’t understand why “to make useful” and “to make use of” are so different.

Odysseus's avatar

@DominicX your understanding is something that I cannot change

DominicX's avatar

Agree to disagree, I guess. “To make useful” and “to make use of” are synonymous expressions in my mind, but I guess to some people they are not; hence the entry in Merriam-Websters.

AnonymousWoman's avatar

I feel that one should know his or her audience and use words that his or her audience will understand, regardless of how big or small those words are.

ETpro's avatar

Nien, nien, nien!

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