« Word snobbery | Main | The Rules of Disparagement »

Don't shrink from the polysyllable

Carol Fisher Saller isn’t afraid of Big Words. Neither am I. Neither should you be.* Read what she has to say about them at The Subversive Copy Editor.

What she is trying to tell you in that post is a variation on a familiar theme: In writing and editing, there is no substitute for judgment. Many short words pack a punch, and many words of Anglo-Saxon origin can be more effective than Latinate counterparts. But that isn’t always the case.

You have to match up vocabulary with subject, audience, occasion, and publication, and that requires developing judgment. If you heed those one-sentence oversimplifications and dogmas about writing — always pick the short word rather than the long one; never use the passive voice, &c., &c. — you will deny yourself the full resources of the language.


*Of course, best beloved, if you weren’t comfortable with Big Words, you wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. Have I told you recently how much I enjoy having a literate audience?


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:59 PM | | Comments (8)


I never have a problem sending readers (of our newspaper) to the dictionary IF the possibly unknown word is the best word for the situation. If, however, there's a clearer (i.e., better known) word that fits just as well, I'll stick that one in instead.

I love it when someone finds just the right word, even/especially if it's a lesser-used one, for a situation. However, I have little patience for people who use big words where smaller ones would do just for the sake of obscuring or showing off.

My dearly beloved mother says that I showed a fondness for big words at a very young age. "And you used them correctly, too."

My heart was warmed a few days ago when I overheard a mom in a parking lot say to her two young children, "Let me reiterate, if you don't have enough money to buy what you want ..."


I ain't no Henry Louis Mencken.

I agree with Lisa. I never seemed to get much encouragement when I'd suggest that an uncommon word in context could enhance the reader's experience and add clarity to a story. It may be worth noting that I never suggested that to a reporter.

Early in my copy editing career, the AME upbraided my slot for approving a headline of mine that included the word "potsherd." My reasoning at the time was "Well, that's what it IS."

We once ran a 1A centerpiece head with "on tenterhooks" in it (in 80-point or so type) and got several calls from puzzled readers the next day. We weren't even trying to be accurate-but-obscure, but there you are.

I've just been asked to interview for a job where I'd be required to write "at the 7th grade level," whatever that means. I've been thinking about it for a couple of days now. Are these 7th graders capable of using a dictionary? (Of course not; the items I would be producing are not the sort of thing a reader would care enough about to go hunting down definitions.) I think that writing at what the company apparently considers a somewhat dumbed-down level will actually be quite challenging.

Oooo, I can practice that Hemingway-only-use-short-words thing! Feh.

@anonymous for this one,

"At the 7th grade level" might mean you need to write like u r txting.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected