When it happened again, I had to stop and ask, “Really? I use too many big words?” The complaint had come from a respected colleague who was reviewing a positioning document I was drafting. The word in question was “inculcate,” but his criticism pertained to the entire document. He admonished me to consult state guidelines on writing in a public forum. This followed closely on the heels of another colleague having told me that if I wanted to be successful in my present role, that I needed to learn to write at the sixth grade level.
Frankly, I was stunned. The main irony of the situation is that I was writing for the parents and the administration of a public school district, not for elementary school children. Therefore, my putative audience consisted of adult human beings, most of whom have completed a college degree, and a fair percentage of whom have advanced degrees. The second irony occurred just a few days later when one member of that same presumed audience used the word “inculcate” (correctly, I might add) during a meeting. Alas, neither of my critics was in the room at the time to hear it.
I have been stewing on this for several months now, attempting to come to grips with the concept that clear communication is tied somehow to simplified vocabulary. English is an amazing language, when you come right down to it. Because of centuries of wars and conquests, English has borrowed words from – or had words imposed upon it by – a plethora of other languages and language groups. As the Canadian writer James Davis Nicoll observed, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
As a consequence of all this procurement and acquisition, we have a rich palate of words in our language from which to choose when searching for a shade of meaning. For instance, let us take the original word in question. Once again, I will consult my trusty unabridged dictionary (Copyright © 1987 by Random House, Inc.). in-cul-cate v.t., 1. to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly 2. to cause or influence (someone) to accept an idea or feeling The suggested sixth-grade alternative was the word “instill.” in-still v.t., 1. to infuse slowly or gradually into the mind or feelings; insinuate; inject 2. to put in drop by drop As you can see from the dictionary definitions alone, these two words are only tangentially synonymous. I was, in fact, after the more active or persistent meaning and I regret now having allowed myself to be talked into changing the word.
But this begs the question that my colleague’s criticism posed. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the document was an internal positioning piece and not intended for broad consumption anyway, would the word instill have made my meaning substantially more clear to a broader range of potential readers? I say that it would not and here is why. As English speaking and reading individuals, we are taught at an early age to identify word meaning from context as a first step when we encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. Consider this sentence: “The nature of these ground rules inculcates a spirit of both trust and respect among the participants.” I submit that the average adult human being with a tenth-grade education would be able to read the sentence and intuit the meaning of the word inculcate (if it were unfamiliar) while grasping the meaning of the entire sentence as well. And by the way, at the same time that we are teaching that sixth grader to draw meaning from context, we are also teaching that same student how to use a dictionary.
This is not to say that I go out of my way to use difficult terminology. Like most writers, I am very selective about the words I choose and I am fortunate to have a reasonably large vocabulary at my command. The initial word I select is, more often than not, the ideal one for the situation. It is almost instinctive. However, sometimes I struggle for days to identify the precise expression I need in order to capture a particular nuance or shade of meaning. The more words I have at my command, the more facile that process becomes.
As it turns out, there is a great deal of debate concerning the size of the average English-speaking adult’s active vocabulary. Part of this debate involves the taxonomies that group similar words (i.e., a base or “headword,” its inflected forms, and its closely related derived forms). An example might be the word “attract.” That would be the headword for inflected forms such as “attracts” or “attracted.” Closely related derived forms might be “attractive” or “attractions.” All of these form a word family. Current research suggests that the active vocabulary for the average English-speaking adult is somewhere between 17,000 and 21,000 word families. Keep in mind that one’s active vocabulary comprises those words we can recall more or less automatically and use at will. One’s passive vocabulary consists of the words we can understand or derive from context when someone else uses them. Naturally, our passive vocabulary contains more word families than our active vocabulary.
There is substantial research to support the point of view that vocabulary size has an effect on many aspects of our cognitive existence (consult this article for links to the research). Certainly a strong vocabulary facilitates verbal and written expression, and extends our ability to communicate nuanced ideas. Similarly, our linguistic vocabulary is our thinking vocabulary. But I still come back to the original question; does simplified vocabulary aid in communication or does it place further limits on effective linguistic interaction? Where is that sweet spot between effective writing and effective communication? Are they not one and the same?
Well, no and yes. There are obvious use cases where the written word needs to be as intelligible to the low literacy reader as to the fully literate reader. Medical instructions and general health information are two such examples. This could easily be a life and death situation so both ease of immediate understanding and lack of ambiguity are paramount. These are cases where shades of meaning are not only undesired, but also potentially dangerous. I maintain, however, that this is not the case in normal business writing, or even in writing for constituencies such as ordinary public policy communication. In these cases, there may be many important shades and textures to the meanings that need to be expressed which could be accessed through a person’s passive vocabulary and/or from context. As a last resort, there is still the dictionary. I submit that the writer does not have sole responsibility for comprehension.
For these reasons, I am not yet convinced that simplification of vocabulary necessarily leads to stronger and sharper communication. Rather, I think that simplification of the presentation structure does more to heighten comprehension than dumbing down the lexicon. If the formal structure of the piece is tight and well ordered, follows a logical flow, and presents sufficient explanation of key or unfamiliar concepts, then most adults should be capable of adequate and reasonable comprehension. Striving to limit the sentence complexity and paragraph length also improves clarity. The writer then supports this foundation with lists (numbered and bulleted) and diagrams. After all, visual display, when appropriately used, is a powerful means of communication. Finally, having someone else review the piece helps immensely to identify ambiguous phrases or concepts.
And here is the surprising thing, the kicker if you will. In spite of my seemingly large and reputedly recondite vocabulary, my writing does not test all that high. If you believe these things, my Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score for this article (unfinished) is 10.0. That is the low end of US tenth-grade level. (An essay that my 14-year-old daughter turned in recently scored 11.7. I am trying not to take this too personally, by the way.) My Flesch Reading Ease score for this article (unfinished) is 52.6, which puts me on a par with Time magazine for comprehensibility. I am satisfied with that. I truly did not want to be rubbing shoulders with the consumers of The Readers Digest. By the way, if you are at all interested in these Flesch-Kincaid fripperies, most of you have access to them if you are using Microsoft Word. For a complete explanation of what they mean and how they work, I refer you to this article in Wikipedia.
The bottom line is that I value a wide-ranging and expressive vocabulary in both my own writing and in what I read. I love nothing better than when H.P. Lovecraft (my preferred “recreational” author) sends me scampering to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word, rife with nuance and effulgent with evocation. Likewise, I am stimulated every time Stuart Kauffman (current read) challenges me to understand yet another “ism” or “ology” that will be central to his argument. Every day seems an opportunity to acquire new tools of either general or specialized use, and my personal lexicon remains one of my most cherished kits. How I use that vocabulary to get my point across to my audience is both my challenge and my craft. I will continue to refine it, but I will not dumb it down.
How do you see the role of vocabulary in the art of communication? What techniques do you employ to enforce clarity in your written work?
By the way, here are Steve’s final understandability assessment results:
- Flesch Reading Ease score: 51.3
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score: 10.3
- Count of distinct words in this article: 661