Why use a complex word when a simpler one will do?

Years spent editing articles written by attorneys (whose writing is purposefully vague) and physicians (whose writing is full of specialized language) have taught me the value of using simple words in place of complex ones.

The use of unfamiliar or complex terms interferes with comprehension and slows readers down. Readers may even skip terms they don’t understand, hoping to find their meaning in the rest of the sentence.

Readers are not impressed by the use of complex words; they’re frustrated by them.

Take “use” and “utilize.” According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the word “use” means, “take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result.” While “utilize” means to “make practical and effective use of.” And though there is a distinction between the two words, there is rarely an occasion to use “utilize” instead of “use.”

Here is a list of some other complex terms and their simpler alternatives.

Advantageous — helpful
Ameliorate — improve
Cognizant — aware
Commence — begin, start
Commensurate — equal
Consolidate — combine
Deleterious — harmful
Disseminate — issue, send
Endeavor — try
Erroneous — wrong
Expeditious — fast
Facilitate — ease, help
Inception — start
Implement — carry out
Leverage — use
Optimize — perfect
Prescribed — required
Proficiencies — skills
Promulgate — issue or publish
Proximity — near
Regarding — about
Remuneration — reward, payment
Subsequently — after or later

Although I try to use simpler words in my own writing, doing so is not always possible. Sometimes I need a complex word to communicate a more precise meaning. Other times, complex words cannot be avoided due to the subject matter. As a general rule, I use simpler words as the basis of my writing and save the more complex words for when they’re absolutely necessary—or if I’m trying to impress another editor.

A version of this story first appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

One Response to “Why use a complex word when a simpler one will do?”

  1. Tom says:

    I totally agree.

    My pet peeve in this category is the use of “e.g.” and “i.e.”. It seems that most of the time people use one when they really mean the other. I always edit those out and replace them with the good old English “for example” and “that is,”.

    I liked your last sentence, which suggests sociological reasons for choosing the more complex term. The simpler word might help us communicate the text more effectively, but we use the complex word to also say something about our academic and social standing, and maybe even to intimidate the reader.