On Vocabulary: or What the Rest of Us Call ‘Words’
Timeless advice for writers is to not use long and difficult words when short and easy ones suffice.
I see lots of otherwise brilliant people writing due to when they mean “because”, complex when they mean “complicated”, in order to or towards when they mean “to”, in the midst when they mean “in the middle”, or just overusing indirect language. Academics are especially good at this — as are undergraduates trying to copy them — thinking that the more complicated and high-flying their sentences, the better the text must be.
You’re not impressing anyone when you’re cluttering your texts. You’re not pleasant to read when your sentences are a mess to get through and your use of words is clunky and require constant help from a dictionary. Unless you’re William Faulkner or Charles Dickens (or Walter Bagehot!) you’re not admired for writing 100-word long sentences (or more!) and there’s no prize for trying to make your sentences qualify for the Graduate Record Examinations.
Mostly, you’re just annoying your readers.
Like Gerard Baker’s opinion column in the Wall Street Journal this week. Just no: Kids, don’t try this at home — or anywhere.
If you’re into needlessly flashing off words from the dictionary — or like me, showing what’s wrong with that — it’s a great article. If you came to the opinion pages to read thoughtful commentary on current affairs, not so much.
I often tell my clients how important the first sentence is. It’s supposed to be short, shocking, powerful, and captivating — or weird, interesting, clever, or absurd. Its purpose is to get the reader interested enough to continue to the second sentence — and then to the third.
Baker, an Oxford-educated journalist and long-time editor at the WSJ, didn’t get the memo. Or he misplaced it somewhere. Baker’s first sentence is an entire paragraph, a full 52 words, and is so convoluted that he lost me twice before I even got to the end. After a start like that, most readers cut their losses and go read something else — anything else!
“Joe Biden aspires to be the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so short of his showing up to work in a wheelchair and sucking on a cigarette holder, the first hundred days, which he marks this week, will serve as the most symbolic reminder of the president’s sense of historic purpose.”
Try reading this sentence out loud without stumbling. It’s just terrible. What’s interesting is that he could almost fix this by simply change the first comma to a full-stop and — voilà !— create the powerful beginning I recommend.
But Baker continues, figuring that nobody would read past the first sentence, so he might as well flash off some of his Corpus Christi-acquired dictionary skills:
“The ritual observation of the passage of FDR’s calendrical contrivance promises to be even more turgid than usual this year. President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, which he delivers on Wednesday, will come with special solemnity. We will be reminded that delivering the nation from the baleful legacy of a one-term Republican in the midst of a national crisis with an urgent flurry of executive and legislative initiatives is what Democrats do.”
If you want your articles to be accessible, you don’t use excruciatingly impenetrable vocabulary catenated by ostentatiously convoluted sentence structures, obscuring its substance and disorienting its intended audience. See? Not pleasant.
If I had simply written: ”if you want your articles to be accessible, don’t use difficult words when simple ones do the trick”, nobody would feel like they just ran a mental marathon.
Besides, notice how little Baker’s gets for his flashy use of a dictionary.
- “Ritual observation” is a tad obscure but reveals the author’s not-so-subtle dislike of focusing on the first 100 days of a Presidency. Uncalled for, but OK.
- With “FDR’s calendrical contrivance” he already has me confused: calendrical (to do with the calendar) isn’t in the noun form we’re used to, but as an adjective; contrivance, which usually means “gadget” or “thing” here seems to refer to the practice of summarising presidents’ achievements in their first hundred days.
- By turgid he just means “bloated” or “too much”, which accurately describes his paragraphs.
The first sentence is 20 words long, delivered in a twisted structure, with at least three words that are much harder than they need be. Why doesn’t Baker just say that he thinks that Biden’s administration is doing too much, too fast?
If he’d wanted to be cliché, funny or a little tacky, he could even have said:
“President Biden compensates for Trump’s ‘too little, too late’ with ‘too much, too fast’.”
14 words. Sharp, short, more to the point, and much easier to take in. And he isn’t getting anywhere: the flashy words don’t add meaning, improve the text, or are the natural words to use. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. With great vocabulary comes great responsibility.
- Biden’s Wednesday speech comes “with special solemnity”. Had one of my clients written this, I would right away scrap ‘special’. It’s useless, doesn’t add anything that isn’t already included in “solemnity” (have you ever experienced a solemn event that wasn’t somehow special?), and is just vague. Special how? What do you mean?
- Then again, I would have advised against solemnity in the first place: what’s wrong with ‘gravity’ or ‘importance’, ‘earnest’ or ‘sobriety’? Better yet: use direct language (“the speech really matters”) instead of this convoluted trash.
- Instead of clarifying, Baker moves to describing Biden’s reaction to a “baleful legacy of a one-term Republican” President (yes, we know how Biden feels about Trump) as “an urgent flurry.” Had he just said that, I would not object too much. Still, excessive use of GRE words, but within reason. Instead, he re-organises what the reader thought was the main sentence into a subclause, and emphasises that doing unprecedented things in unprecedented times “is what Democrats do.” Excuse-what? Definitely uncalled for, and probably wrong.
And on and on it goes: in the fourth paragraph we get complaisant, blanched, and deference; in the middle sections we get off-topic rants, and strenuous, pantheon, and burgeoning; it ends with euphoria, retroactively, and and resumption. You can rehearse your college kid’s SAT test with this column (and no, it wouldn’t make them better writers).
Baker might once have known how to write. But in this piece, he just comes across as a pompous prick, flashing off his extravagant vocabulary.
Take this, dear aspiring writer, not as an entertaining critique, but as an inspiration: you can write as poorly as Baker does and still have a great career as a writer and journalist.
Before you submit your work: go through it one last time and look for words that don’t belong, hard words that can be replaced by easy ones, and words that aren’t doing the job. Don’t do what Baker does here.
Use the guardrails of language and grammar to assist your readers, not signal your own brilliance. Let language be the tool for conveying information that it’s meant to be; use it to build and help, not annoy and belittle.