Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how short words are more potent than long words.
Here's an exercise I often give writing students: write a sentence using as many long words as possible. When their pens stop and their bent heads lift, I say: now continue the thought of the first with a sentence using as many short words as possible. The kids come up with a nutty variety of sentences, but over the years we've discovered together that the long-short combination has a uniform effect, best illustrated by quoting one dramatic example that got a big laugh the night the student read it aloud:
The splendiferous Italianate ballroom was extravagantly festooned with elegant baroque chandeliers. In his heart he knew it was all crap.
Whether the students write about Martians or movie stars, all their long-short combos create the same effect: pomposity punctured by a pin, rodomontade exposed by rat-a-tat facts, cloudiness made clear.
"Use short words" is as deep a bedrock rule of writing English as any. Wise teachers, in outlining how English blends Mediterranean and North European tongues, suggest to their classes that it's better for characters to walk— plain, short, German word — than to ambulate — fancy, long, Latinate word. Never fear: I'm here not to bury the rule but to praise it. "Use short words" is one of those clichés that are all too true.
HE SHE IT SAID YES NO LIFE DEATH DOG GUTS HOUSE MAN POST PEN DOOR GOD GOLD — English overflows in one-syllable words, their bap-bap beat every writer's primary resource. One-syllable words are so common in English that good prose contains many more one-syllable words than words of two syllables or more. Whenever we analyze a fine passage like these concluding sentences from The "Genius" by Theodore Dreiser, we find one-syllable words predominating:
"Where in all this — in substance," he thought, rubbing his hand through his hair, "is Angela? Where in substance will be that which is me? What a sweet welter life is — how rich, how tender, how grim, how like a colorful symphony."
Great art dreams welled up in his soul as he viewed the sparkling deeps of space.
"The sound of the wind — how fine it is tonight," he thought.
Then he went quietly in and closed the door.
Sixty-eight of those seventy-nine words have one syllable, seven have two, and four have three. Dreiser doesn't draw our attention to his short words; the passage simply reads well and has a modest grace. In contrast, James Jones makes monosyllables a mark of his tough-guy style — here from Whistle, his last novel, a description of an old soldier, wise as a sea turtle:
An old turtle who had swum the oceans of his planet for two centuries, avoiding the traps laid by men and wearing the scars to prove it, until now he was so huge there wasn't anything for him to fear anymore. And Alexander was huge. He had always been a big man, even back in the old days, but then he had been relatively lean. Now he carried a huge hard paunch that stuck out in front of him two feet, and meat packed the skin of his head and neck to bursting. And it wasn't fat. It was meat.
This is English prose as simple and strong as can be. Of its hundred words eighty-four have one syllable, including the twenty-four in this splendid run between "carried" and ?bursting":
...carried a huge hard paunch that stuck out in front of him two feet, and meat packed the skin of his head and neck to bursting.
To find more short words than in Jones we need to go back to Daniel Defoe, the father of modern English plain prose; here a storm he describes in Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain:
The next day the wind began to freshen, especially in the afternoon, and the sea to be disturbed, and very hard it blew at night, but all was well for that time; but the night after it blew a dreadful storm, not much inferior, for the time it lasted, to the storm mentioned above, which blew down the lighthouse on the Eddy Stone; about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and, which was worse, the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces.
Of those one hundred and twenty-one words, all but four have one or two syllables; three have three, and one has four syllables. Defoe achieves his high short-to-long word ratio the old-fashioned way, by sticking to North European words — wind, sea, ships, guns, help; his few long words — especially, inferior and intermixed— are predictably Latinate.
We could go on reveling in treasure troves of short-word writing — Shakespeare's sonnets and the King James Bible, to name only two — but instead let's look at what happens when long words are allowed to run amok. Read this if you can from Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction by William Ray:
In Validity, Hirsch first introduces validation as a second-level evaluative operation that takes as its objects the preliminary constructions of meaning produced by understanding: "understanding achieves a construction of meaning; the job of validation is to evaluate the disparate constructions which understanding has brought forward." Although not identical with it, this distinction appears to be derived from the classical hermeneutic distinction between the subtilitas explicandi of explanatory phase of hermeneutics, and the subtilitas intelligendi of preliminary understanding, which in Hirsh's system advances through implication rather than explication.
Long words strangle this passage. Of the ninety-one words, only forty-three have one syllable, sixteen have two, eight have three, a staggering twenty-two have four, and two have five. Since most of Ray's one syllable words, a, it that, and in disappear as we read, we are left with one big word lumbering along after another. Readers can handle occasional monstrosities — there's nothing wrong with antidisestablishmentarianism in its place; it's all those four- and five-syllable words that clog up the works:
validity introduces validation second-level evaluative operation preliminary understanding: understanding validation evaluate understanding validity identical hermeneutic subtilitas explicandi explanatory hermeneutics subtilitas intelligendi preliminary understanding implication explication.
Many of the long words are abstract -ation words piled one upon another: "implication rather than explication." Ray's short nouns and verbs —
notion study argues takes objects meaning produced achieves job brought appears derived phase system advances
— tend to be empty words to which concrete words give shape: an object could be a star or a grain of sand. Words like notion, phase, and system give us nothing to put our hands on, nothing to see.
Such long-winded vagueness soon overwhelms the English language, swallowing up meaning in boring fogs of gas. Long-word writing is not, strictly speaking, ungrammatical, for the system that allows:
A cat ate a mouse.
must also allow:
A feline spiritual essence, expressed in the temporal-spatial universe as a furry physical corpus of diminutive dimensions, consumed a furry physical corpus of still more diminutive dimensions.
But that doesn't mean the English language enjoys twisting its tongue over such verbiage, or that readers will leap to unravel its pointless twists and turns.
In summation, when inscribing our mental processes in a verbal medium, we are well advised to utilize most frequently meaningful letter-groupings that are not horizontally over-extensive. Or, use short words.
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon