Power of Short Words in Business Writing

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published May 16, 2009, updated November 17, 2014

I’ve long admired Richard Lederer’s writing on language. In his 1991 book, The Miracle of Language, Lederer sings the praises of the short word:

When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words— like sun and grass and home—are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have.

Big words can make the way dark for those who read what you write and hear what you say. Small words cast their clear light on big things— night and day, love and hate, war and peace, and life and death. Big words at times seem strange to the eye and the ear and the mind and the heart. Small words are the ones we seem to have known from the time we were born, like the hearth fire that warms the home.

Short words are bright like sparks that glow in the night, prompt like the dawn that greets the day, sharp like the blade of a knife, hot like salt tears that scald the cheek, quick like moths that flit from flame to flame, and terse like the dart and sting of a bee.

Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.

These four paragraphs contain 221 words, all of them one syllable. MS Word’s Readibility Score is 100% – the highest score possible. These short words are both profound and easy to absorb. It is simple, but not simplistic, and very persuasive.  This passage represents clear, vivid, effective writing that can be easily absorbed by business people battling information overload.

The most evocative Bible passages and many proverbs use this same short word structure:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1)

A stitch in time saves nine.

This does not mean “Don’t use big words.” We must use big words in our business writing and conversation, when they express a meaning no other word can. We work with technical and industry terms, and sometimes a big word best depicts this.

Two tips on clarity I always highlight in business writing courses:

  1. Never use a big word when a small word will do.
  2. Write to express, not to impress.
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Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published May 16, 2009, updated November 17, 2014
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.