Word Choice: Small Is Still Better Than Big

The true size of the English language is often debated and probably impossible to determine. Those who do try to quote the count tend to agree that English includes about 250,000 to 300,000 distinctly usable words.

The second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (2009) comprises 171,476 words in current use; 47,156 obsolete words; and another 9,500 derivative words as subentries (a total of 228,132).

The estimate of an English speaker’s vocabulary varies more widely. Some say the average person has 5,000 to 6,000 words for retrieval. Others say 10,000 to 20,000. In a May 2013 web article, The Economist used its own test results to measure that an adult native’s vocabulary ranged from 20,000 to 35,000 words. William Shakespeare was said to have had a word bank that soared as high as 60,000.

Of perhaps even greater note, whatever the size of your vocabulary, many agree that most of us draw from a main base of up to 1,000 words to express ourselves—which leads to why we’re discussing big versus small.

Words’ primary function is to convey our thoughts, ideas, wishes, and opinions. If people have a vocabulary of 5,000 words on the low end and 35,000 on the high (we won’t include Shakespeare), but they often rely on a core 1,000, we can deduce that a part of our language will be understood by all.

A look at just one list of the 1,000 most common words shows almost all have three or fewer syllables. We use a smaller, simpler index because it ensures greater clarity and easier processing, which leads to greater trust, which leads to greater credibility.

A Princeton University study determined that using big words can even make people look, well, not so smart. When it comes to words, small beats big, and clear outfoxes complex.

The (superb) website GrammarBook.com has touched on this in Resolutions for Word Nerds (see #4). It has also cited where a four- or five-star word can be acceptable and even desirable (Big Words We Can Use).

Overall, expressive and persuasive writing blends the diverse, pointed, and evocative words available to us. Some will be big, and some will be small. In everyday communication, however, less is more in making sure we’re quickly understood, especially in an age of content overload.

Here’s but a start on keeping your writing ready to convert from big to small:

Instead of / Use

abstemious / restrained or moderate

anachronistic / out of date

auspicious / promising

circuitous / indirect

circumlocution / wordiness

conviviality / cheer

enervating / tiring

hypothesis / theory

jubilation / joy

magnanimous / selfless

ostentatious / flashy or showy

parsimonious / frugal

perfidious / shady or corrupt

perspicacious / alert or aware

Use Power Words

You can often raise responses to your messages by simply changing a few flat words to power words.

One survey of effective headlines revealed that the following words appeared with the most frequency: you, your, how, new, who, money, now, people, want, why.

Other powerful words and phrases are: here, yes, at last, do you, here, urgent, secrets of, love, introducing, announcing, good news, free, first, exclusive, easy and exciting.

Also consider how you and your readers would react to certain words. Which would hook you faster: "savings" or "discount"? "Big" or "huge"? "Promised" or "guaranteed"?

The next time you're writing a message that aims to sell or promote, go through it and see how often you use these tried-and-true response-generators.

Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?

Writers know that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They likewise understand it can enhance an infinitive, a gerund, a participle, a phrase, a clause, a preposition or the rest of the sentence in which it appears.

The question that remains is whether the agile adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun as well. Some observers say yes; others disagree.

Those in the “yea” will cite usage such as almost everybody went to the party and hardly anyone took the test as proving an adverb can augment a noun or a pronoun.

Those in the “nay” will point out that, by definition, a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun is an adjective; therefore, if an adverb is describing a noun or a pronoun, it qualifies as an adjective and needs to be categorized as such.

The Yeas will then counter with two points. First, they will refer to a sentence such as even these numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adverbial modifier of the phrase these numbers.

Compare that usage with these even numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adjectival modifier of numbers.

Second, the Yeas will refer to usage in which an adverb follows a noun to describe it, as in the opportunities here are endless. The word here, an adverb, modifies the preceding opportunities. Similar usage appears in let’s discuss this in the room upstairs.

The Yeas might add to their counterpoints with a sentence such as where are my keys? A purist beholden to definition might argue that where as an adverb modifies the verb, are. In turn, the Yea team could argue that where adverbially modifies the subject keys after the linking verb to be.

Further clouding the issue is that dictionaries vary in their classifications of certain words. For example, ninjawords.com and dictionary.com categorize ahead as an adverb only; merriam-webster.com includes it as both an adverb and an adjective. How then would we label it in the phrase the road ahead?

For the word forward, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com seemingly treat it as an adjective when it precedes a noun and an adverb when it follows one. Ninjawords.com likewise identifies forward as both an adverb and an adjective, although its stance on whether it can be an adverb for a noun is less clear.

Though leaving room for uncertainty, this possible accord on forward could unite the Yeas and Nays in allowing that the word adverbially describes a noun in a phrase such as from that moment forward. However, here again the Nays see an obvious opening: forward can also be interpreted as an adverb modifying a prepositional phrase.

In sum, the grammatical house remains divided over whether an adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun. Where disparity appears to erode the most is when the adverb follows the noun, as in the opportunities here and the room upstairs. Here we may someday see usage and classification become common enough to achieve consensus.

Until then, we’ll continue to watch and wait for when, where and how majorities may or may not form on this issue as American English further evolves.