Another Reason to Keep Your Writing Simple

Here’s a new subsection I’m adding to my Academic Legal Writing book, right after I discuss various tips for avoiding usage errors:

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Simple words will rarely steer you wrong: You know what they mean, and you generally use them only because you think they’re the right tools for the job. But fancy words are often less familiar, and people sometimes use them precisely because they are fancy. This increases the risk of error.

Thus, for instance, I sometimes hear people say “fulsome” to mean “full” or “thorough,” for instance in the phrase “a fulsome analysis.” But as it happens, one definition of “fulsome” is “offensive to good taste, especially as being excessive” or “excessively or insincerely lavish.”

Some people even claim that this pejorative definition is the only correct one, and “fulsome” in the sense of “comprehensive” is wrong. I think they themselves are wrong on that: Both definitions of “fulsome” are common in educated writing, and both are listed in dictionaries. But it’s still unwise to use “fulsome” for “thorough” — it annoys some people, and distracts others. Why use in a positive sense a word that has a negative connotation to many readers?

Likewise, I sometimes hear people use “nonplussed” to mean “unfazed” or “unperturbed.” But the dictionary definition is “utterly perplexed.” Many people will assume this is what you mean, even if the “unfazed” meaning becomes common enough to be a standard alternative definition (and I don’t think it has become that common yet). Much better to avoid “nonplussed” altogether, and certainly to avoid it when you mean “unfazed.”

Of course, the interesting question is how to avoid falling into these traps when you don’t know that they are traps. One answer is to stick with the simple and common words. If “thorough” had an inherently negative connotation, you’d know it by now. The fancier and rarer terms, such as “fulsome,” are the ones likely to come with little-known dangers.

Nor should you worry that avoiding fancy words will make your prose look “dumbed down.” In my experience, people notice misuse of fancy words. They notice use of fancy words, and often dislike such use even when it’s technically proper. But they don’t notice the absence of fancy words, in a passage that consists entirely of simple words: They just notice what the simple words are saying, which is what you want readers to notice. What persuades and impresses readers is the quality of the argument, not the sophistication of the wording.