During the summer after my first year of high school, I concluded that I was destined to become the greatest prose stylist of my generation. My ninth-grade English teacher had been generous with her praise, and I had let it inflate my ego to titanic dimensions. When school resumed in the fall, I swaggered into my new English class, determined that my genius be recognized.
I labored over our first assignment for several nights. I assumed my talent would be self-evident, but just in case it wasn’t, I made sure to demonstrate it at every opportunity. I replaced as many words as I could with more complicated ones from a thesaurus. My characters had no names, with no identification other than the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they”—a masterstroke, I believed. After long meditation, I decided to call my piece “Verily, Verisimilitude,” because I wanted to ensure that I would never be able to take myself seriously again.
My new English teacher gave it a C. I was crushed, but it was a lesson I needed to learn.
English, the mongrel language that it is, gives us more ways to say the same thing than any other language. Often we have as many as three words to represent the same idea, the only difference being whether the word’s origin is Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek. For example, the words “harmful, “injurious,” and “deleterious” have three different etymologies, but all three present the same information about the word they are modifying. Likewise, “overfullness,” “profusion,” and “plethora” all mean a large or excessive quantity.
Although these options add variety and color to the language, they can also be a curse. Trios of exact synonyms tend to sort themselves into different registers—usually, the Anglo-Saxon word has become casual, the Latin word has become formal, and the Greek word has become even more formal. When faced with a choice between three words that have similar meanings but seemingly connote different levels of intelligence, writers like to choose the most impressive. However, nothing is easier to spot than pretension in writing, and a simple idea expressed in a string of polysyllabic words reeks of it. Even the most sympathetic reader will soon picture you as an agitated peacock strutting your tail feathers.
George Orwell wrote an important essay in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language.” Although he says a number of different things in the essay, my takeaway has always been, “Write what you mean.” If what you have to say isn’t complex, don’t make it so. You’ll only fool yourself into thinking you wrote something more clever than you actually did.
You might also think of it this way: To the pedant, there is no such thing as a true synonym. Different words exist for many reasons, and sometimes the more complex word is the only one that will capture your intended meaning. These words are like irreducible fractions, a 5/9 or 15/16 that cannot be simplified without changing what they convey. But when you can use 1/4 instead of 12/48, why wouldn’t you? It keeps your ego from getting in the way of your ability to communicate, and it saves your reader from having to pull out a dictionary, assuming they are even willing to put that much effort into understanding you.
Sinclair Target is a Columbia College junior majoring in computer science. On Target runs alternate Fridays.