Friday, October 21, 2005

Lesson 2: Turn quarter words into nickel words

What does subsequently mean?

Go ahead and think about it for a few seconds. I'll wait.

Did you say "next?" Or "later?" Or, did you say, as many people say, though they're incorrect, "therefore"?

Well, subsequently can mean next or later. Which is why you shouldn't write with a word like subsequently, or any other big word (called polysyllables by grammarians). You should use the exact word you mean. The way to do that is to take those quarter words and break them down into nickel words--by using next or later instead of subsequently, depending on which one you mean.

By doing so, you will be completely clear. You won't rely on your reader to interpret what you mean. That's precision in writing. That's clarity for your reader.

You see, in English, smaller words are almost always more precise. They are easier for your reader to understand, making your message more powerful. (And hey, smaller words are easier to spell, making it faster for you to write.)

There will always be technical and scientific words we must use in certain industries. Like my friend Brad, the physician, who will always have to say hemoglobin. Or my husband, who's in the utility industry, who must write with kilowatt. And my youngest brother, John, who writes software for missile navigation, will need the word semaphore. (That's a protected variable used to restrict access to shared resources in computer programming. Or so he tells me.)

If you have to use big words for technical stuff, you need to make doubly sure every other word you use is a small one.

What words do I mean? Here are some common quarter words that creep into complicated business writing:

Detrimental. Just say "bad," or "harmful."
Sufficient. A better choice is "enough."
Possesses. How about "has"?
Accelerate. Don't you mean "speed up"?
Numerous. "Many" is much clearer.
Utilize. Aaaarrrgggh. This one is my pet peeve. Just say "use."

Why are these smaller words a better choice? I'll give you the research to back up my claims. Since 1960, the working vocabulary of Americans has gone from 25,000 words to 10,000 words. There are many reasons for this, and the dumbing down of America, what most of my seminar attendees guess, is not one. Neither is the complete breakdown of our educational system, which is the second-most common comment I get.

My personal observation is there are two factors at play. One is that we have many more messages in many more media than we did in 1960. We can't take it all in as fast as we need to. Smaller words help us get through it faster. (I'll post about this in the near future.)

The second factor I believe to play a role is the inclusive nature of American culture. Unlike Asia, Russia and the Middle East, we have many different cultures in our society. And as our society becomes more diverse, our language becomes clearer so it can serve everyone.

I ask my English as a Second Language students in my college courses if they ever learned subsequently as part of English vocabulary. I have yet to have any one of them tell me yes.

If you spent a great deal of time in school building up your big vocabulary, take heart. You will always need it--to read bad writing. But you will never need it to be a good writer.