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Writers browsing the Internet get to see several pages of writing tips, ranging from a small set of five to a mammoth set of 35 tips. But almost every page contains one particular tip as absolutely central to all writing. Winston Churchill said: “Broadly speaking, short words are the best, and the old words, when short, are the best of all." Fowler’s classic, King’s English, says that “... prefer the short word to the long".

Why do they advise you to avoid long words? Their reasons are clear. First, don’t use words that will send your reader to the dictionary. Most of your readers have a purpose in mind: they want to get something done. If you have used an unfamiliar word, they will skip it or make a quick guess of the meaning and proceed. Second, if someone uses pompous, bombastic words when speaking to you, you might begin to suspect his motive. Third, when there is an excess of big words, the message that the smaller words carry may be lost.

Readability studies claim that the difficulty level of a text corresponds to the average sentence length and the percentage of long words, that is, words of three or more syllables. Short words used in short sentences make for good readability.

Against this background, you have to look at the “Word Lover’s Miscellany" in Chambers Dictionary, 12th edition, released last August. One section of the miscellany is titled “100 words that impress." Many of these words are polysyllabic. Are you to avoid these words as Fowler recommends? Would Chambers have presented such a list if you had no use for them?

Restricting your writing to short words would deprive you of a major part of the language’s resources. You might end up with a reproduction of Ogden and Richards’ Basic English. Another way to look at it is to see the big words as a sort of fixed deposit from which you draw occasionally, and the short words as deposited in a savings account to be used in everyday communication.

Here are some sentences from media reports that illustrate the use of long words from the list. “Fulminate" means explode in a flash of lightning and by extension, denounce vehemently. Referring to Indian cricket’s debacle, the Hindustan Times said, “We fret, fume and fulminate against a ‘good for nothing’ India team, its ageing and now lustreless stars." “Excoriate" is a stronger word, which means tear off the skin, and by extension, to censure strongly. The base of the word is corium, or skin. “The editorial excoriated the government for its inept handling of the crisis."

“Cataclysm" is a word that means more than misfortune or disaster. Greek kataklusmos means deluge or flood, accompanied by a violent change in the earth’s crust. In the present context it means a violent upheaval in world finance, as seen in the following sentences. David Riley of Fitch said that the European Central Bank “should ramp up its buying of troubled euro zone debt to support Italy and prevent a cataclysmic collapse of the euro". On the same subject, Tushar Pradhan of HSBC Asset Management said: “A cataclysmic event in Europe will spare no market globally, including India’s".

“Insidious" means “acting in a subtle or sly manner to cause harm." Latin insidious means cunning, deceitful. ABC Online has the sentence, “Cyber bullying is insidious and it looks as though it’s here to stay." On the proposed registry for pregnant women in Brazil, Slate magazine’s headline read: “Brazil’s insidious new pregnancy registration law violates the privacy of women."

I do not see Chambers’ miscellany as a list of banned words. People can choose their words, short or long, guided by their instinct.

As I put down my pen, I see across the room my nephew grappling with words from GRE and SAT word lists, not short words by any reckoning.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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