Quotes on short words

What writers and others say

“We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”
— Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States, and mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth

“Be careful of the words you say
Keep them short and sweet
You never know, from day to day,
Which ones you’ll have to eat.”
— Anonymous

“Never use a big word when a diminutive phrase can be utilized.”
— Anonymous

“I’d lecture a bunch of chemists or engineers about the importance of not saying, ‘It would be appreciated if you would contact the undersigned by telephone at your earliest possible convenience,’ and instead saying, ‘Please call me as soon as you can.’ That was revealed wisdom to these people.”
— Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist, on the eight years he spent teaching businesspeople how to write

“Words are all we have.”
— Samuel Beckett, Irish writer, dramatist and poet

“Readers may know that utilize means use and optimum means best. But why make them translate?”
— Skip Boyer, the late executive producer and director of executive communication at Best Western International Inc.

Quotes on short words

“See a thing clearly and describe it simply.”
— Arthur Brisbane, former editor, The Kansas City Star

“Why do people like long words when the short ones are there? Perhaps it gives a sense of importance to use in business or in writing for the public reading a form of language which is not used at home or in conversation. We would not, as I said, talk about optimum dietary in our own dining rooms. Nor, I hope, would any normal man say to his wife, ‘I would like a differential in my nutrition-units for breakfast tomorrow.’”
— Ivor Brown, British journalist

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
— Lord Byron, British poet and leading figure in Romanticism

“Imagine if Shakespeare had written, ‘All’s well that finalizes well.’”
— Steve Chawkins, columnist, Ventura County Star

“Short words are best, and old words when short are the best of all.”
— Winston Churchill, British statesman, author, prime minister

“Leave ‘said’ alone. Don’t be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to opine, elaborate, cajole, or chortle.”
— Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute, in Writing Tools

“Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning; if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British poet

“Big words seldom accompany good deeds.”
— Danish proverb

“Old Diz knows the King’s English. And not only that. I also know the Queen is English.”
— Dizzy Dean, professional baseball player and sportscaster, defending his unique use of grammar

“Mary rolled her eyes. Did he hope to dazzle her with syllables? What a curious fellow he was.”
— Emma Donoghue, in Slammerkin

“It happens that the first words we learn are the simplest and shortest. These first, easy words are also the words we use most frequently. Twenty-five percent of the 67,200 words used in the 24 life stories written by university freshmen consisted of these ten words: the, I, and, to, was, my, in, of, a, and it. The first 100 most frequent words make up almost half of all written material. The first 300 words make up about 65 percent of it.”
— William H. DuBay, readability expert and author of Unlocking Language (PDF)

“To speak of ‘mere words’ is much like speaking of ‘mere dynamite.’”
— C.J. Ducasse, French philosopher

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
— William Faulkner, Nobel Prize-winning author, on Ernest Hemingway

“You hear that? He said, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s four syllables of yes. Four syllables of his life which he will never get back. Next time … simply say yes and save three for ‘I love you’ to your young lady.”
— a character in Jon Fasman’s The Geographer’s Library

“Eloquence is lean. But I didn’t know that when I started speaking seven years ago. I used weighty language for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, I can see innocence in the mistake. I was younger than most of my clients. My expertise had been acquired through an eclectic route. I had no degrees or designations behind my name. So I used three-dollar words to sound credible, ‘content-ful’ and smart. The more nervous I got, the more tiles disappeared from the Scrabble bag.”
— Juliet Funt, speaker and owner of Talking on Purpose, Inc.

“WWMAD: What would Maya Angelou do? If you were one of the great masters of clarity blended with poetry, how would you say it?”
— Juliet Funt, speaker and owner of Talking on Purpose, Inc.

“Look out for the verbs ‘be,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ and ‘has,’ ‘have’ combined with nouns and adjectives. See if you do not gain by using the verb itself, clear and clean. Edit your writing to simplify your verbs. ‘He looked outside and became aware of the fact that it was raining’ revises easily into ‘He looked outside and saw that it was raining,’ or, more simply, ‘He looked outside. It was raining.’ Instead of ‘We had a meeting,’ try ‘We met.’ The meaning is different, slightly, but if the second phrase is accurate, it is better — we save three syllables, we add vitality.”
— Donald Hall, American poet and Poet Laureate

“I don’t consider myself a writer, in the sense of using fancy words and trying to impress somebody with writing. I think when I first started out I was looking for the dictionary all the time. I thought using fancy words was the sign of a writer. Now, I think it’s the sign of a hack. I try to avoid throwing in a few little things to show them that I’m a writer to impress people.”
— Tom Hallman, reporter for The Oregonian

“You can destroy the life in any piece of writing by gutting its verbs.”
— Jack Hart, managing editor of The Oregonian, in A Writer’s Coach

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
— Ernest Hemingway, author, on William Faulkner

“In your writing, experiment with melody, rhythm and cadence. Prefer the simple to the technical; put shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. [R]eaders will remember how the story sounded and resonated in their heads long after they’ve put the newspaper down.”
— Michelle Hiskey and Lyle Harris, journalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Do not accustom yourself to use big words for little matters.”
— Samuel Johnson, English author

“A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could not live without a verb.”
— Edward P. Jones, author, in The Known World

“When you use words people have to look up in a dictionary or search for in Wikipedia, you’ve failed.”
— Guy Kawasaki, former chief evangelist of Apple and author of Enchantment

“If I see ‘upcoming’ slip in[to] the paper again, I’ll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”
— Barney Kilgore, legendary editor of The Wall Street Journal

“When we can use the precise word, rather than its second cousin, we ought to do so. It’s good discipline, for one thing, and good fun to boot.”
— James J. Kilpatrick, journalist and author of The Writer’s Art

“First figure out what you want to say. If you don’t have the guts to say it, stop and make cookies. Don’t use big words. English professors are a tiny minority of the population. Nobody should have to use a dictionary to read your piece. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.”
— Joe Kirkup, essayist

“There has been much debate over Dan Brown’s novel … but no question has been more contentious than this: if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00:03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: ‘Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.’ With that one word, ‘renowned,’ Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow-joggers — nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require. (Buried far below this tic is a fear that their command of basic, unadorned English will not do the job; if Brown feels that way, he’s right.) You could dismiss that first stumble as a blip, but consider this, discovered on a random skim through the book: ‘Prominent New York editor Jonas Faukman tugged nervously at his goatee.’ What’s more, he does so over ‘a half-eaten power lunch,’ one of the saddest phrases I have ever heard.”
— Anthony Lane on The Da Vinci Code, in The New Yorker

“Anglo-Saxon, the honest language of peasants, packs a wallop. In Anglo-Saxon, a man who drinks to excess is not bibulous but a drunk, a man who steals is not a perpetrator, but a thief, and a man who is follically-impaired is not glabrous, but bald. Direct language is powerful language.”
— Bill Luening, senior editor, The Kansas City Star

“I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and a half dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abcess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
— H.L. Mencken, 20th-century journalist, sage, critic and curmudgeon

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’”
— A.A. Milne, English author and creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns … instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
— George Orwell, English novelist, in Shooting an Elephant: Politics and the English Language

“Bad writers — and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers — are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.”
— George Orwell, English novelist, in Shooting an Elephant: Politics and the English Language

“In Japan, some words have kotodama, which are spirits that live inside a word and give it a special power.”
— Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

“English is the product of a Saxon warrior trying to make a date with an Angle barmaid, and as such is no more legitimate than any of the other products of that conversation.”
— H. Beam Piper, science fiction author

“In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold:
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet be the last to lay the old aside.”
— Alexander Pope, 18th-century English poet

“He replies nothing but monosyllables. I believe he would make three bites of a cherry.”
— François Rabelais, French Renaissance writer

“When is the word ‘utilize’ better than the word ‘use’? Scrabble.”
— @MarkRaganCEO

“I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know ’em the minute you see ’em.”
— Will Rogers, American humorist and entertainer

“Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.”
— William Safire, columnist for The New York Times

“‘Nice’ is a mystery to me, because while on some mundane level I aspire to it, it’s the last thing I would want a table full of dullards saying about me. I don’t understand ‘Nice.’ ‘Nice’ is a lazy, one-syllable word, and it says nothing at all. I prefer to surround myself with more complex words, such as ‘heroic’ and ‘commanding.’ That Dolf — is he a national treasure, or what?”
— David Sedaris, author, in Barrell Fever

“If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams — the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”
— Robert Southey, English poet

“I see but one rule: to be clear.”
— Stendhal, 19th-century French writer

“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
— Tom Stoppard, English playwright

“Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit

“An average English word is four letters and a half. By hard, honest labor I’ve dug all the large words out of my vocabulary and shaved it down till the average is three and a half. … I never use the word metropolis, because I’m always paid the same amount of money to write city. I never write policeman because I can get the same price for cop. I never write valetudinarian at all, for not even hunger and wretchedness could humble me to the point where I will do a word like that for seven cents; I wouldn’t do it for fifteen.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit, in a letter to D. W. Bowser

“[To an editor]: It is curious and interesting to notice what an attraction a fussy, mincing, nickel-plated word has for you. … It was sound English before you decayed it. Sell it to the museum.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit

“William Shakespeare wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist

“Language is a very difficult thing to put into words.”
— Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and philosopher

“[Avoid] abstruse instructions that could only have been created by an engineer consulting a lawyer.”
— Alan Weiss, principal, Summit Consulting

“I’ll explain, and I’ll use small words so you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog-faced buffoon.”
— Wesley (Cary Elwes), a farm boy in “The Princess Bride,” speaking to the king

“Compensation and remuneration say nothing that pay does not say better. Gift is more to the point than donation. Room will beat accommodation every time, as try will defeat endeavor. On the other hand, interface, parameter, viable, finalize and prioritize are typical of the voguish words that mask, rather than reveal, what it is we want to say.”
— Alden S. Wood, columnist on language and English usage
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