Shorter words usually work better

“Long words are not necessarily good words.”

Long and Short Pencils on White Background

This piece of wisdom comes from Commercial Correspondence, a book by Ralph S. Butler and Henry A. Burd originally published in 1923.

Ninety-three years later, copywriters and public relations pros are still trying to get this message across to their clients and managers.

According to Butler and Burd, the origin of most long words is Latin and Norman-French, languages historically used by the learned and the nobility. Shorter words come from the simpler Anglo-Saxon language of the common people. A larger number of people needed to understand what a law meant, for example, or how to make an accurate measurement, so the words used had to familiar.

The same is true almost a century later – and it will be true a century from now.

While the authors acknowledged that long words are “just as good English” as the short ones, they stressed that the effectiveness of words can’t be discounted.

Business English is effective English. It makes people do things. There are a great many good English words that are not effective in business. Long words of Latin origin are usually in this class.

We know this intuitively. Here’s proof: When your managers or clients want to sound formal, extremely knowledgeable or highly educated, what do they do? They use longer words. “Communication” instead of “letter.” “Organization” instead of “company.” “Ideation” instead of “ideas.” “Core competencies” instead of “strengths.”

I know it’s tough to persuade such managers/clients to simplify their language. How have you done it? Have you tried sharing the possible consequences of an audience taking action based on a misunderstanding?




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