The Right Word is the Simpler Word



by Millie Ho

Note: This is a follow-up video/post to my post “To People Who Think I Use Big Words to Sound Smart”.

After reading Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which was full of clear and powerful language, I realized that the right word is often the simpler word.

This is because the goal of communication is to make sure you are understood. It’s less about what you know and more about how you show what you know.

When given a choice, always choose the simpler word because:

  1. Simpler words are familiar, and therefore understood quickly.
  2. Simpler words are often more in context (vs. a more archaic or technical big word).
  3. Simpler words communicate complicated ideas better.

This goes back to the post about how my classmates said I was using big words to sound smart. After reading “Mystic River”, I’ve started thinking about things from my classmates’ point of view.

My classmates misunderstood me because I used big words purely to help myself learn, instead of trying to communicate well. Ultimately, it was my own damn fault that my classmates misunderstood me—I was not using the right words! I was using big words to improve my understanding, sure, but I didn’t consider whether those words were the right words to convey my ideas.

Now I know better. Now I’m choosing the right—and often simpler—words.




Guest post contributed by Millie Ho. Millie is a writer and illustrator from Toronto, Canada. She uses her blog  and YouTube channel to document what she’s learned about writing from both the writing process and from books, TV shows, and films.


18 thoughts on “The Right Word is the Simpler Word”

  1. I agree with you on some notes, and disagree on others…

    The right word is simple, but it is not always a ‘common’ word or term… I’ve noticed a tendency to ‘dumb’ down language in literature… we’re told to write on a 5th grade level for journalism and/or media & advertising and even books now… Most books out there qualify as YA because they are listed as 5th or 6th grade reading levels… But is that a good thing? Are we helping and communicating, or enabling and patronizing? (Note: I had to use the thesaurus to get the word ‘patronizing’ from the inaccurate initial thought word of ‘condescending’.)

    I mean, have you read Mark Twain? Wow… even in his day, those words were uncommon… I think, perhaps he was challenging the reader (kids and young adults) – OR he was a bit of a masochist and enjoyed torturing people with language. lol.

    Anyway… hehe.

    I am fairly well-read, but there is at least once or twice a week, when reading a book or article, I have to look up a word in the dictionary or online. And when I write, I am very careful about what word I choose, and I want it to be one word that encompasses as much of that emotion, or thought, or action, as possible. (It doesn’t always work, lol, but it’s worth a try!)

    It frustrates me when others, in the information age, with a computer in their pocket, linked to sites like won’t look up a word and automatically relegate that article or story to the ‘snobby’ pile. (Hey, maybe it *was* the right word?)

    Anyway… I’m going to play devils advocate here and say that probably, on this line of thinking… there’s a middle path.

    Nice post. Thanks for the ponderings. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As I write this piece, I keep in mind the fact that each word is the same in one way. Can you guess what that is? If you try to do this, you’ll find that it’s hard! It’s a strange thing. See if you can do it too. I think you’ll then say that it might not be the best way to write. What do you think? Can you pick out what’s “dumb” here? 😀


  3. Another really good reason to use simpler words is that it contributes to the flow of actually writing. You write faster. I can pontificate with permutations of elecutive prowess with the best of them – even inventing my own words. But parking in the middle of a sentence to look for that word that renders picayune nuance can be counter-productive. Writing simply doesn’t mean writing stupidly, either. You can be quite profound with simple words. But, the main thing is exactly what you said. Communicate with the reader. Don’t suffocate them with your vocabulary.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I use $50 words for the snobby character’s dialogue. The type of character who would reply to a “nice to meet you” greeting, with “The pleasure is all yours, I’m sure.” That type of character wants to impress others with his vocabulary.


  5. Thank you for your post! I am a pharmaceutical copywriter. In that field, it’s important to write as simply as possible to get ideas across. However, English is such a rich and wonderful language with rich and wonderful words. Depending on the project, a novel for example, I wouldn’t pass up a word that creates euphony or avoids repetition simply because there is an easier alternative. Doing so runs the risk of sacrificing part of the craft of being a writer. Of course, producing effective writing while also sticking with simple words is also a craft. Perhaps word choice depends on what you are trying to accomplish.


  6. There is a lot of debate about precision in big words and intelligibility in small ones. I enjoyed this short but sweet post. I often encounter both sides of the problem; it can be a real struggle! I think the biggest take away is to be cognizant of others. It’s not always about us.



  7. I feel so lied to by all those English teachers who encouraged me to have a big vocabulary. I think it is good for a writer to understand a variety of words, but clarity is more important than wit or prose. Dang it.


  8. If we are to believe Hemingway, the right word is the ‘right’ word. Any word is appropriate so long as you don’t mean it to reflect back on you but rather serve the text and communicate what you truly mean. Any thoughts on that?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s