Ryan Holeywell: Simple is smart; complicated is not

I couldn’t help but notice the irony earlier this month when, the same weekend I was furiously studying dozens of bizarre, unfamiliar vocabulary words for the GRE, I had also been assigned reread one of my favorites for class, William Strunk and E.B. White’s “Elements of Style.”

The thesis of the decades-old book is that the best writers keep their writing simple. They don’t use too many adjectives, they keep their thoughts organized and most importantly, they don’t use obscure words that are rarely used in speech. If you’ve ever read an academic paper, you know these rules aren’t always followed (often with disastrous results). But for us journalists “the little book” is our Bible.

Reading Strunk and White again helped me realize that maybe I should forget all those fancy GRE words I memorized for the test I took Tuesday. After all, as a journalist, there’s no need for me to use most of these words ever again. In fact, unless I decide to enter the lucrative field of GRE vocabulary list compilation, there is no chance I’ll ever use most of them. In the interest of my future writing career, I’m declaring “down with big words” and vowing to unlearn these tricky terms so I won’t even be tempted to insert them into my writing. From now on, I’m only going to use more commonplace terms.

I’ll admit, it might seem strange that I want to undo all the hours I spent lucubrating studying late at night with Appendix A of my reputable GRE study book. But honestly, I just don’t see the point of keeping these terms in my arsenal. As I look through the thousands of words on the list, I can’t figure out why half of them exist when most have synonyms everyone has heard of.

I won’t go as far as questioning the probity integrity of anybody in higher education, but let’s face it: vocabulary words are big business. My study book cost me $32.99, a prep class (which I opted against taking) is more than $1,000, the test costs $130 (plus $40 to reschedule); I can pay $10 to get my score over the phone and extra score reports are $15 apiece. Someone is making a lot of money making sure I know that “foal” means “young horse.”

If I want to go to graduate school to be a journalist, is it really integral that I know “mendacious” is a synonymous for “dishonest?” In an article, would it really benefit me, the reader or anyone else if I were to describe someone as “saturnine,” when “gloomy” would likely do just as well? It’s not that I’m too lazy to learn new words – trust me, I’ve been sedulously diligently studying for this test – I just don’t see the point.

Some of the examples in my study guide are amusing. Ever heard of a sticky-note? Page 596 describes 3M’s Post-it notes as viscid (sticky). Such peculiar examples are ostensibly intended to illustrate the use of these unwonted unusual actuality, they illustrate the message of Strunk and White perfectly: Sometimes, using the fancier word just makes things awkward.

When I was an editor at The Hatchet, I noticed tyro novice writers sometimes went overboard and used fancy words I had never heard of. Somehow they got the idea that this is what good writers do. Based on what I’ve seen in some academic publications, I’m not surprised people are under the mistaken impression that smart writing has to be bombastic. But my rule of thumb is that if a term sounds like a dictionary.com “Word of the Day,” I probably won’t use it.

When a scribe writes of “descrying” something rather than “discovering” it, when he describes the homeless as “impecunious” instead of “poor” and when he labels a speech “inchoate” instead of “disorganized,” he isn’t helping the reader at all. There is no shame in writing with a simpler vocabulary, and using more commonplace terms doesn’t translate to a dumbing down of quality.

The best scribe succeeds by molding prose with words everyone knows, just as the best painter succeeds by manipulating his brush in the same paint anyone can buy. Rembrandt’s work didn’t suffer from a lack of glow in the dark pigment; Leonardo’s work didn’t suffer from a lack of glitter and sequins. Do yourself a favor: forget the fancy words. Simple prose is usually the most pellucid clear.

-The writer is a senior majoring in political communication.

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