Word Choice: Small Is Still Better Than Big



The true size of the English language is often debated and probably impossible to determine. Those who do try to quote the count tend to agree that English includes about 250,000 to 300,000 distinctly usable words.

The second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (2009) comprises 171,476 words in current use; 47,156 obsolete words; and another 9,500 derivative words as subentries (a total of 228,132).

The estimate of an English speaker’s vocabulary varies more widely. Some say the average person has 5,000 to 6,000 words for retrieval. Others say 10,000 to 20,000. In a May 2013 web article, The Economist used its own test results to measure that an adult native’s vocabulary ranged from 20,000 to 35,000 words. William Shakespeare was said to have had a word bank that soared as high as 60,000.

Of perhaps even greater note, whatever the size of your vocabulary, many agree that most of us draw from a main base of up to 1,000 words to express ourselves—which leads to why we’re discussing big versus small.

Words’ primary function is to convey our thoughts, ideas, wishes, and opinions. If people have a vocabulary of 5,000 words on the low end and 35,000 on the high (we won’t include Shakespeare), but they often rely on a core 1,000, we can deduce that a part of our language will be understood by all.

A look at just one list of the 1,000 most common words shows almost all have three or fewer syllables. We use a smaller, simpler index because it ensures greater clarity and easier processing, which leads to greater trust, which leads to greater credibility.

A Princeton University study determined that using big words can even make people look, well, not so smart. When it comes to words, small beats big, and clear outfoxes complex.

GrammarBook.com has touched on this in Resolutions for Word Nerds (see #4). We have also cited where a four- or five-star word can be acceptable and even desirable (Big Words We Can Use).

Overall, we believe expressive and persuasive writing blends the diverse, pointed, and evocative words available to us. Some will be big, and some will be small. In everyday communication, however, we uphold the adage that less is more in making sure we’re quickly understood, especially in an age of content overload.

Here’s but a start on keeping your writing ready to convert from big to small:

Instead of: Use:
abstemious restrained or moderate
anachronistic out of date
audacious bold
auspicious promising
circuitous indirect
circumlocution wordiness
conviviality cheer
enervating tiring
hypothesis theory
jubilation joy
magnanimous selfless
ostentatious flashy or showy
parsimonious frugal
perfidious shady or corrupt
perspicacious alert or aware

Posted on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, at 4:26 pm

6 Comments on Word Choice: Small Is Still Better Than Big

6 responses to “Word Choice: Small Is Still Better Than Big”

  1. Irving Rosenfeld says:

    I don’t agree with your advice in the email I received today: (1) You recommend substituting “theory” for “hypothesis.” Those words have different meanings. A hypothesis has no objective proof. A theory is a hypothesis that has been confirmed by all empirical evidence. (2) You also suggest substituting “bold” for “audacious.” “Audacious” is more than “bold” as in the Manchester attacks yesterday.

    • We’d like to thank Irving R. and several other of our e-newsletter fans who are knowledgable in the sciences for your comments regarding theory and hypothesis.

      The key thing here is common vs. scientific use. In everyday use among folks not familiar with scientific or engineering terminology, theory and hypothesis are used to mean pretty much the same thing. Many dictionaries list the words as synonyms. Among scientists they are two different things. Here is a good explanation from Merriam-Webster.

      In their scientific contexts, those of you who wrote in are correct.

      Concerning auspicious vs. bold, we understand the subtlety you are describing. Again, our aim is to choose a word that reaches the widest possible audience. Everyone likely knows the meaning of bold, whereas far fewer could instantly define audacious. Your point concerns degrees of bold; however, to the average reader, not enough meaning is lost to warrant using the bigger word (unless of course you’re aware that your audience knows the difference).

  2. David Lemons says:

    “ready to convert from big to small” Another instance of “dumbing down” among communicators. Why?
    Fewer discriminating readers.
    Rise of digitalization of teaching and knowledge.
    Fewer inspiring teachers who are themselves deficient in sophistication.
    Reliance on movies and television to inform and entertain the public instead of print.
    And…

  3. John Reece says:

    I agree sans equivocation. To eschew obfuscation is an admirable intent for all who would communicate effectively.

  4. Hanna Saadah says:

    In the quiz of today, you failed to use the subjunctive:
    3.
    A) If I was rude, then I’m sorry.
    B) If I was rude, than I’m sorry.

    Both sentences should read: If I were, not if I was.

    cheers,

    • The subjunctive is used with a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. While this is a fine point of interpretation, the quiz sentences are more about varied impressions of a real event.

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