“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
Useful advice from Mark Twain, and it’s true that five dollar words can alienate our audience and make us appear pompous and out-of-touch. Especially if you choose obscure five dollar words like polysemous. (adjective : having multiple meanings)
Matching vocabulary to audience is basic communication advice. When writing for a general audience, the advice is to write for a level even lower than you might expect. Like a junior high grade level. More on this later.
I say, why not lift your audience—not to mention the state of language use in our culture!—by aiming appropriately higher.
Word choice is especially important when writing for clarity and brevity. Sometimes it takes a $5 word to communicate what you really mean. Many .50 cent words are vague and open to slightly different perceptions and interpretations. Another reason to choose a $5 word over a .50 cent word is that .50 cent words are overused. They are always on the tip of our tongue and top of our mind so the tendency is to use them and run.
If you truly are squeezed for time, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Sometimes choosing the word that ‘will do’ is fine.
But whenever you take a second pass at any writing, why not do so with a thesaurus. With just a little extra effort and a few more additional minutes, you can greatly improve the meaning and resonance of your message.
To both illustrate this and get you started, following are a dozen commonly used words in marketing content and business communications, across many industries. Each one is followed by a few options–some $5 choices–that add extra nuance and meaning for different situations:
- Good — Satisfactory, Competent, Functional, Serviceable
- Better — Superior, Preferable, Finer, Greater
- Great — Excellent, Outstanding, Notable, Superior
- Begin — Cause, Commence, Launch, Initiate, Activate
- End — Finish, Conclude, Exhaust, Terminate, Squelch
- Main — Primary, Prime, Central, Dominant, Leading
- Effective — Sound, Workable, Virtuous, Adequate, Suitable, Fitting
- Plan — Scheme, Plot, Design, Scenario, Direction
- Use — Employ, Exercise, Select, Implement, Exploit
- Fast — Swift, Accelerated, Hurried, Nimble, Instant, Express
- Try — Attempt, Endeavor, Strive, Target, Persevere
- Help — Support, Assist, Accommodate, Encourage, Relieve, Mitigate
With all due respect to Mark Twain, I say go ahead and use more $5 dollar words. Sticking with .50 words limits our vocabularies, which limits our communication potential.
You get what you pay for!
One last note: Regarding readability, I tested a few paragraphs of this post (starting with “Word choice is especially important…” and ending with “resonance of your message”) and here’s the results:
- The reading ease score was 73.8 (68-80 is considered easy to read)
- The average grade level was 8.1 (as already mentioned, grade 8 is recommended when writing for a general audience)
Lots of online services and tools are available to check for readability. I recommend Readability Score, which is easy to use and offers both free and affordable premium versions.