On the first day of class, I ask my college students which aspect of their writing they most hope to improve. For the ten years I have been teaching, the most popular answer I’ve received is they want to improve their vocabulary. As a lover of language, I applaud the desire to learn new words and include them in one’s lexicon, but this can actually be a little dangerous. I once read an essay that began with the phrase “When I was a miniscule girl.” Now, I figure my student started with the phrase “When I was a little girl,” but in an attempt to spice up her vocab, she looked up “little” in the thesaurus and came across the seemingly much cooler word “miniscule.” However, instead of communicating to her audience that the action took place when she was younger, it sounds like she used to be freakishly small. I imagine this preoccupation with vocabulary stems from the fact that we have been told from a young age to use fancy words and to avoid repeating words in our writing. However, in business writing, using a varied and elaborate vocabulary can actually work against us.
One of the major goals of business writing is to communicate the intended messages as clearly as possible to our audience; keeping our language consistent can help achieve that goal. In his book Sense of Style, linguist Steven Pinker argues, “Wording should not be varied capriciously, because in general people assume that if someone uses two different words they’re referring to two different things.” For example, let’s say a document includes the instructions to “delete” a file. However, in an attempt to vary the language throughout the document, the writer uses synonyms for “delete,” such as “overwrite,” “erase,” and “clear.” The reader might get confused and think that he or she is being instructed to take four different actions with the file instead of the one.
If using too varied of a vocabulary can potentially confuse a reader, using too elaborate of a vocabulary runs the risk of alienating a reader. Again, the main goal of business writing is to communicate clearly, not to impress our audience with how smart we are. If we have the choice to use plain language or fancy language, we should always opt for plain language. Finance expert Suze Orman was once asked if she was afraid people wouldn’t take her seriously because she communicated in simple language, to which she responded, “All I care about is that the information I’m imparting empowers the listener or reader of my material. If your intention is to impart a message that will create change for the person listening, then if you ask me, it is respectful to that person to make the message as simple as possible.” As the New York Times’ article “Vocabulary Size” pointed out, “Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated statement about how he had nothing to offer but ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ would have elicited nothing but puzzlement had he replaced that quartet of short nouns with the synonyms vermeil, moiling, delacrimation and sudorificati.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way trying to dissuade people from building their vocabulary. There are some gorgeous words out there that deserve to be known and loved such as “cynosure,” “imbrication,” “lagniappe,” “palimpsest,” “susurrus,” and “tintinnabulation.” However, the reason to learn these words is not to impress your potential employer in a cover letter or your fellow colleagues in a report.
Jenny Baranick is a Rady School Center for Executive Development (CED) instructor and the author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares. Register for Baranick’s CED program on Effective Business Writing and learn the skills to communicate clearly, concisely and creatively in a professional environment.