Thursday, June 25, 2009

Length matters

No bones about it, we all know length matters. Given the choice between the long straw and the short, I know which one I’d pick, any day. Long is safe, it’s seductive, it’s impressive. The longer, the stronger, they say, and in many cases I’d agree with that happily. In language terms, however, I take the opposite view: the longer, the wronger.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nowt against long words as such. When used aptly, the long word is perfectly in its place. And considering the amazing extent of the English language, why not mine the glorious length and depth of its vocabulary? It’s not that I'm an anti-size queen for lawd’s sake (‘gimme the ant-sized not gi-ant-sized’) or suffer from hippopotomonstrosessquipedaliophobia. It’s just that I prefer reading pithy writing as opposed to screeds of "flashy stunt words", as Ben Zimmer, true word junkie and editor at the Oxford University Press, puts it.

What’s that I hear? You’re not convinced? Don’t tell me you think polysyllables pack a better punch. Nonsense! Polly-silly-billies, I call them, and the dumb parrots who succumb to them deserve a really good tap on the bill (funnily enough, in Dutch ‘bil’ is what they call your gluteus maximus). Really, given the choice, which sentence do you like better: A or B?

A. The feline entity posed sedentarily on the vestibular runner.
B. The cat sat on the hall mat.

See? You chose B. Probably because you can tell in a flash what the sentence is all about. Now look at both sentences again and tell me which one was written by the more intelligent author. Now you say A, maybe because you think: Big words = Big brains. It’s erudite, right? Well, let me ask you: How easy was it to understand A? Did you instantly get that ‘runner’ in this context doesn’t mean ‘someone moving faster than a walk’ but that long strip of dusty carpet you find ‘running’ down a hall (funnily enough, in Dutch it's called a 'walker').

Oh, so you’ve changed your mind, have you? Now you think B is the more intelligent. Well done, you’re right! Most people would think the author of B is smarter but don’t take my word for it, there’s proper scientific evidence to prove it.

Smart people don’t write to impress, but to express themselves clearly to ensure their message gets across. Smart communicators consider their readers. They know that any extra effort is a turn-off and only makes readers inclined to think the writer is dumber rather than smarter. In a nutshell, this is the message of a paper called ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’ by Daniel M. Oppenheimer of Princeton University. Bet your bottom dollar it’s an easy read, so don’t miss it!

Let me leave you now with popular VJ Joanne Colan and her stumble-free recital of the longest lingo in the language. Top marks for tackling such wily stunts as honorificabilitudinitas and the ultra-long Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Enjoy, and see you next week!

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