In Praise of Small Words: The Grace Notes of Prose

"Small words can be crisp, brief, terse—go to the point, like a knife"

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). (Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.
(Winston Churchill, The Times Literary Award Presentation, November 2, 1949)

One way to get straight to the point when you write is to use short words—not all the time, of course, but when you sense that your prose has grown dull and thick, weighed down with large words that just take up space and get in the way of what you want to say.

In a pinch, small words can speed up a line and light up a thought—like this:

Some small words, more than you might think, are rich with just the right feel, just the right taste, as if made to help you say a thing the way it should be said.

Small words can be crisp, brief, terse
go to the point, like a knife. They have a charm all their own. They dance, twist, turn, sing. Like sparks in the night, they light the way for the eyes of those who read. They are the grace notes of prose. You know what they say the way you know a day is bright and fairat first sight. And you find, as you read, that you like the way they say it. Small words are gay. And they can catch large thoughts and hold them up for all to see, like rare stones in rings of gold, or joy in the eyes of a child. Some make you feel, as well as see: the cold deep dark of night, the hot salt sting of tears. . . .

There is not much, in all truth, that small words will not say
and say quite well.
(Joseph Ecclesine, "Advice to Scientists—in Words of One Syllable." American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1965)

Keep in mind, too, that you don't have to sound like The Cat in the Hat when you use short words. Just think of these well known lines:

  • We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
  • I have a dream.
  • Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.
  • To be or not to be . . .
  • If you build it, they will come.
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • If you can't beat them, join them.
  • If you prick us, do we not bleed?
  • These are the times that try men's souls.
  • We are who we choose to be.
  • May the Force be with you.
  • Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
  • Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!
  • Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • Seize the day.
  • Make hay while the sun shines.
  • The heart wants what it wants.
  • I love you.
  • So it goes.
  • This is the short and the long of it.
  • What's done is done.

As you well know, our goal should not be to fill up a page with short words or with long words. We should aim to find the best words, a mix of the long and the short.

But when your thoughts get lost in the web of words and you can't seem to find your way out, try to clear your head and clean up your prose with a few small words.

Trust me: it works.

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