Do You Use “Big” Words?
Do you ever get accused of using “big” words in your writing? Your critics don’t really mean that the words are long, necessarily. They mean that the words are obscure or infrequently used, and suggest a pretentious attitude: “Look at me—see what a big vocabulary I have!”
I can appreciate the annoyance that a reader might have with such an attitude. It is similar to the hidden message that jargon and specialized terminology can have in a piece of writing. It tells the reader that if they do not understand the terms being used, they must not be part of the “in” crowd.
I don’t think writers do this on purpose all the time; in other words, I don’t think they are always being arrogant and elitist. For some people it is just the way they talk, and they don’t realize other people don’t talk that way. It can also be a form of shorthand; in specialized fields, certain terms (or abbreviations) are used to refer to a concept that does not have to be repeatedly explained to the audience it is written for.
Christian writers do this all the time. We mention salvation or justification with the assumption that our readers understand the theology behind these terms. This kind of shorthand is necessary, but we need to know our audience so that we don’t end up using words and phrases that readers don’t understand—or worse yet, terms they think they understand, but which they define differently than we do.
But often, that is not the case when we are accused of using “big” words. Our critics may know the definition of the words used, but but they are annoyed because the words are seemingly out of place. When you use an unusual word, it places an undue emphasis on a part of the sentence that is not appropriate. For example, if I wanted to quote a Bible verse, and I said, “The Bible articulates . . .” it is odd-sounding, because the emphasis should be on the words of Scripture, not on the verb that precedes them. It would be far better, of course, to simply say, “The Bible says . . .” Whenever you use a word that is out of the ordinary, check to see if you really want that part of the sentence to stick out.
Using “big” words is vain, and often hypocritical as well, because the inappropriate use of a word may indicate that you do not really know the definition (or, more likely, the connotation) of the word you are using. The next time you use a twenty-dollar word, look up its definition in a dictionary. You may be surprised to discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did!
By the way, a pocket thesaurus that does a good job of clarifying connotations is The Right Word II: A Concise Thesaurus Based on the American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin (Mark H. Boyer, ed.).