Antidisestablishmentarianism: On Why Big Words Aren’t Always Better

Morgan Alexander

I remember standing in line in third grade when Jason Lee informed me that he knew the longest word in the English language. I was immediately impressed, and without hesitation I asked him what the word was. “Antidisestablishmentarianism,” he answered quite quickly. I then asked him to repeat it slowly so that I would be able to rattle off the behemoth of a word. Little did I know, this was the “grandfather of all nominalizations,” according to Helen Sword in her article “Zombie Nouns.” I asked him what it meant and he said that he did not know, but he knew it was the longest word. I remember being frustrated by this. It was nice to be able to recite the word, but I wasn’t able to use it – at least not correctly. When we are learning to read our progress is partially measured by the difficulty of the words we can read, which means reading longer words is celebrated. This feeds into the common misconception that writing requires big words to be sophisticated.

I would imagine that plenty of teachers have received papers where it is clear that the student used a thesaurus to look up an alternative, more intelligent sounding word. This problem of overwriting is addressed in Sword’s article. She argues that nominalizations “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.” I agree with Sword; using large words just for the sake of it prevents clarity and makes the writer come across as lofty. Sword puts it eloquently when she states that, “At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication.” When used improperly, nominalizations are a nuisance and they are distracting. Sword highlights the importance of finding the balance when choosing words. But why is finding this balance so hard? Because a lot of it is intuitive – and intuition is impossible to teach.

A person can read two versions of a sentence that get the same point across but still have a distinct preference based on the style and construction of the sentence. It is important to remember how crucial verbs are. Choosing a vibrant, descriptive verb will always sound better than throwing a bunch of nominalizations together. For example, ‘I have concluded’ sounds less convoluted than ‘I have come to the conclusion.’ Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup echo this idea in lesson 3 of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. They write, “Readers will think your writing is dense if you use lots of abstract nouns” (32). This should act as a fair warning seeing as one would want their writing to be clear rather than abstract.

These questions of how one should write cannot be properly addressed without discussing audience. Sword states that academics as well as “lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers” love nominalizations. A pompous sounding writer risks losing their audience, which defeats part of the purpose of writing – to communicate your ideas to others. This issue is echoed in an article written by Joshua Rothman titled ‘Why is Academic Writing so Academic?’ Rothman argues that academic writing is ambiguous in that “it’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completest. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience.” Rothman attributes some of the characteristics of academic writing to the shrinking and increasingly specific audience. We know that it is important to write with audience in mind, so can we blame academics for writing for theirs? The article goes on to discuss how demand for academics in the humanities has decreased, which only further shrinks the pool that is their audience. But one cannot ignore the other issue raised in the article, which is that of exclusivity. By writing at the level academics do, they are inadvertently excluding a large part of the population.

I attended a lecture at the University of St. Thomas; it was a panel of four professors from various disciplines responding to Thomas Pfau’s book Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. The lecture was interesting, though admittedly hard to follow at times. A man raised his hand during the question and answer portion and asked Dr. Pfau if he could step out of his academic speak and address the undergraduates about the importance of what his book discusses for the humanities. There were a fair number of undergraduates there, and the professor was being asked to adjust to his audience.

Dr. Pfau rose to the challenge and after taking a moment to consider the request he was able to adapt to the needs of his undergraduate audience. His words were extremely insightful and I took the most away from this question and answer session. He explained that the professions of lawyers and doctors and accountants are noble and necessary, but that he would argue we have a slew of them in our society who didn’t actually want to become lawyers and doctors and accountants. He attributes this to parents and other social factors surrounding the view of the humanities. I can only assume that he addresses these issues in his book but in a much more academic tone. This is all well and good, but I can’t help but ask myself if I were to sit down and attempt reading the massive work if I would glean from it all that I did from hearing him speak candidly on the subject? This is an example of why it is important to account for audience. Dr. Pfau did not dumb down his speech, but rather he simply clarified it. He was still eloquent and articulate.

However, choosing the simplest word isn’t exactly the solution either, because there is still the issue of style. We want our writing to be clear, yet elegant, tight, yet, beautiful. In other words, we expect a lot from our writing and as editors we expect a lot from our writers. I argue that we, as writers and editors, must strive for a balance between overly simplistic and exceedingly fluffy writing.

It would be inaccurate to argue that all academic writing is horrid and unreadable. There are many who have mastered elegant academic writing. Amy Einsohn does this in The Copyeditor’s Handbook. For example,

As several of the preceding examples illustrate, it is best to phrase a query in terms of what readers need, want, or expect. Queries worded in this way serve to remind the author that the primary purpose of a publication is to inform, persuade, or entertain and delight readers, and that all editorial decisions should be made with the readers’ interests at heart (44).

This passage is beautifully written and is clear yet sophisticated prose. We should all strive to have intelligible writing that strikes the balance like Einsohn’s.

It is important to be thoughtful when choosing words. Mr. Keating, Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society, warns us to, “avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.” This moment is another example of finding the balance. Keating advocates for finding the right word, which can be a daunting task. Exhausted has more connotations than very tired does, and it is these feelings beyond the literal definition of a word where we find the beauty.

We must combine the advice from these various readings when considering our own writing. The process of editing requires reflection. When editing your own work you must reflect on it and be able to separate yourself. As pointed out in our readings, this can be especially difficult for writers. Consider your audience. Are they going to understand what you are trying to say? Because they can only read what you actually say.

So, back to the question of how to achieve the perfect balance in your writing. Ask yourself if your verbs are active or passive. Don’t let nominalizations “cannibalize” your verbs. Ask yourself if the connotations of the word you chose match the message you are trying to convey. Did you choose that word because it sounds good or because it sounds right? Big words may sound impressive, but they sound less impressive than a “simple” word when used incorrectly. We should strive for clarity with style. Your writing should embody your voice and have your own personality within it rather than attempting to sound intellectual. A clear, organized, well-written thought is all we can hope for as writers. We are all in search of the perfect word, and that is an ambiguous quest; and as Sword reminds us, none of us wants our writing to “feel like trudging through deep mud.”

 

Notes:

Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Robin Williams. Touchstone, 1989.

Einsohn, Amy. “Basic Procedures.” The Copyeditor’s Handbook a Guide for Book          Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California, 2006.

Rothman, Joshua. “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic? – The New Yorker.” The    New Yorker. Condé Nast, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.             <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-is-academic-writing- so-academic>.

Sword, Helen. “Zombie Nouns.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company,            23 July 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.             <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie- nouns/?_r=1>.

Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014.

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5 Comments

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  1. Your introduction is so strong and memorable. It sets up exactly what you’re going to talk about, and you were able to tie it into the title (which is something I love doing, if intrigue and phrasing permits). Right off the bat, I agree that we must be thoughtful when choosing words. If we weren’t, a great portion of writing and prose wouldn’t even be worth reading. But there’s a huge different between selective language and confusingly complex language. Your example of Mr. Keating stating, “don’t use sad, use morose” is a perfect example of the sort of language selection I’m talking about. “Morose” is an infinitely superior word to “sad”, and it has the added bonus of sustaining certain connotations that the word “sad” is unable to convey. Just because a word is only two syllables doesn’t mean that it’s not complex enough to sound smart.

    I’ve had certain professors that I find difficult to connect with because of the language they use. I was at the same lecture Morgan attended, and I was relieved when an audience member asked Dr. Pfau to explain his argument in more understandable terminology. Not to say I don’t like being challenged by large, foreign words, but sometimes a simpler word is just as good, if not better. With this, the act of simplifying language may serve your cause better than unnecessary complexity because it allows a wider audience to understand your argument or opinion.

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  2. I love your example of the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” and how you emphasize that, “t was nice to be able to recite the word, but I wasn’t able to use it – at least not correctly.” I couldn’t agree more with this. Sometimes we feel like using big, confusing, and “academic” sounding words is going to impress our professors, parents, and peers. Is it really? I think they would rather us sound like we know what we’re saying rather than trying to sound more intelligent than we may very well be 😉

    I think it’s great that you touched on the importance of audience. Yes, nominalizations can seem tedious and unnecessary, but if you’re using them when addressing a certain audience, it can be O.K. But if you’re losing communication with your readers–skip the nominalizations. So should we all just use simple words then? This seems like it may be the most direct way to communicate with readers. But you brought up a good point when you say, “However, choosing the simplest word isn’t exactly the solution either, because there is still the issue of style.”

    Style is so, so important! It’s important to have balance, like you explained. We all need to show our own voice, but not “over achieve” with using words we may not even know the meaning of. Just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean it’s right. I think that’s the point you were trying to get across–that is important to keep in mind as a writer and an editor.

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  3. Katie Ballalatak March 28, 2016 — 10:44 pm

    Your introduction (like Sofia and Halle have previously commented on) is perfect! “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is such a mouthful and I can relate to your experience— when I was little I loved showing people that I could say it quickly without tripping over any of the syllables (I also did not know what it meant. I just liked hearing myself say it).

    Your paragraph on nominalizations is very insightful. You say, “using large words just for the sake of it prevents clarity and makes the writer come across as lofty”; I couldn’t agree more! I love your word choice of “lofty” because personally, I tend to mentally “float” over sections of writing that I find incomprehensible and too much of a hassle to read. If authors are way up there with their vocabulary and they don’t use strong verbs or have a consistent subject, chances are I’m not going to closely read (or comprehend) whatever they’ve written. You quote Sword who says that nominalizations either help express complex ideas or impede clear communication. I think it’s so important to know when your nominalizations are helping and when they are hindering communication! “Which nominalizations are harmful and which are helpful in my writing?” should be a question every writer asks themselves after they’ve written something.

    And then, of course, you bring in the issue of style which is just as important as clarity. Like you said, choosing simple vocabulary isn’t going to fix every writing problem. Balance between style and clarity is the key to a writer’s success. “Everything in moderation” is the phrase that comes to mind!

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  4. This is such an important discussion for our class to have, and your explanation (especially the story with Jason Lee) made a complicated topic very clear! I’m glad that you can make us feel better about not knowing the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” by the third grade.
    A couple weeks ago I sat in a doctor’s office as he asked me to rate the pain in my jaw (ouch) on a scale from one to ten, then use words to explain that pain. By this time he knew about my English major, and after I used the words “pressurized” and “stabbing” pain, he explained that there are entire specialized departments of people around the world who come up with the best words to help people describe their pain to medical professionals.
    My point in this story is to expound on your important discussion of big words versus important words. “Pressure,” “stabbing,” “cramping,” etc. are crucially uncomplicated explanatory words! And although “lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers” might not need their readers to understand them within a couple seconds, your post brings up the point that the purpose of writing is to communicate ideas to others, not to sound lofty. Surely doctors and skilled editors want to sound smart, but being smart and using big words certainly don’t go hand-in-hand.

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  5. John Muellner May 9, 2016 — 5:54 pm

    This topic of using large words rather than common language fascinates me. I feel that the point of any kind of writing is to share, and so I find it interesting that so many writers, especially in academic fields, choose to use vocabulary only those in that subculture are familiar with. This only shrinks the audience and prevents more people from hearing the message. This is especially important today in terms of health. If someone has a serious medical condition they’re not going to want their doctor to only speak to them using medical terms. One could leave the doctor’s office thinking there’s something wrong with their heart when it’s really their lungs.

    As an English major, science really isn’t my area of expertise. For my biology class we would read an assigned chapter from the textbook and the next class my professor would lecture as if we had all of the vocabulary memorized. I found this difficult as later in the semester many of the terms were brand new to me, and I know I did not get as much out of the lectures as I could have, had I been familiar with his vocabulary.

    You’re absolutely right about the need to find a balance in our writing. While the large words tend to keep the audience limited, too many basic words keep the audience bored. Omitting “very” from our vocabulary is a great idea because we have dictionaries full of words for a reason. Using more expressive words will only make our writing clearer and flavorful.

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