Words come in many sizes. Some words are big, bold, and impressive – a few that jump to mind are “lugubrious,” “incommoded,” and “pusillanimous” – and these mammoths are not for literary neophytes. Other words are small, perhaps even cute, and these make up the bulk of the words we encounter on a daily basis. Although the smaller words are usually adequate to communicate our thoughts, many of us think that, when it comes to words at least, bigger is always better. It may be true that larger words sometimes offer meaning and stylistic benefits their smaller counterparts aren’t equipped for, but large words can just as easily decrease sentence clarity, increase wordiness, and reduce overall writing effectiveness. This raises an obvious question: does word size really matter?
Admittedly, large words do look impressive. If we see an author whip out a 10-cent word like “grandiloquent,” many of us will immediately think “wow, this author must be smart!” However, if the author could have just as easily used “showy” instead, then we will probably think the author is being, well, grandiloquent. For a concrete example, consider the following sentence:
“An avaricious, mendacious Homo sapien told a munificent millionaire he was not ambulatory and needed monetary resources that would enable him to purchase a wheelchair.”
It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Now consider the next sentence, which has the same meaning as the first:
“A greedy liar told a generous millionaire he couldn’t walk and needed money for a wheelchair.”
Which sentence sounds better? Unless you’re stylistically tone-deaf, you probably said the second.
These examples prove that sometimes words can just be too big. Words like “impecunious” simply don’t fit into some sentences, and trying to squeeze them in is only going to be off-putting for many readers. Writers who stuff sentence after sentence with unnecessarily large words just sound pretentious, and their messages get lost in a morass of polysyllabic indulgence. These writers may also cause readers with smaller vocabularies to feel insecure, which is the surest way to alienate an audience. Smaller words usually communicate ideas just as effectively as larger words, and most readers will find them far less intimidating and, therefore, much more satisfying to read.
Make no mistake, big words definitely have their place. Sometimes larger words simply “fit” better, and it may take nothing less than a spate of arcane words to stimulate the most adventurous readers. However, just using big words doesn’t make someone a good writer, and no word is inherently better than any other word because of its number of syllables, vowel-to-consonant ratio, or esotericism. The best, most effective word depends on the situation, meaning that the old adage still rings true: it’s not the size of the word that matters; it’s how you use it.