Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobes Are Friends, Not Food

Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words.  It’s useful to keep hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobes in mind when writing.  I’ve been reading War and Peace for the last two months (much longer than I’d like) and I’ve noticed something strange.  Even though my copy is over 1400 pages, most of the words used are less than three syllables.  The sentences are extremely long– a paragraph occupying half a page usually consists of two sentences– but it reads easily.  I began to wonder whether short words equate to easy reading.

Now that I think about it, it’s obvious.  Books that teach kids to read in grade school are great examples: every word has to be monosyllabic or those little tykes are lost.  As we learn to read, it’s tedious to read words of three letters; as we get better, we don’t get stuck on two syllables, but five.

Ever wonder why “shrink” is slang for “psychotherapist”?  It’s easier to say.  If it’s a mouthful, it gets a slang equivalent.  “Dormitory” becomes “dorm”.  “Identification card” becomes “ID”.  “Television” is “TV” or “telly”.  These abbreviations came before text characters were restricted– they exist solely because someone thought they were too hard to say.  All the acronyms the military uses are examples of this; “IED” is much easier to say than “improvised explosive device”.  JAG officer is better than Judge Advocate General.  G-force is cooler to say than gravitational force.  These weren’t accidents.  Well… yes, they were.  Someone thought something was too hard to say, so they made it shorter.  As it got shorter, it got better.  It’s possible to snap, “ID please”; it’s impossible to do the same with “identification card please”.  The latter is reserved for computers.

My point is that even in narrative, shorter is better.  If you can explain something in one syllable words, do so.  It’s not about saving time or shortening wordcount– this will probably increase it– but about increasing pace.  I’ve never enjoyed a book that forces me to read each sentence twice to understand it.  Using long words doesn’t sound smart, it sounds confusing.  Unless you’re writing books on law, you don’t want your readers confused.

I’m not telling you to slow down and put exactly one three-syllable word every two sentences; if anything, speed up and don’t worry about finding the perfect five-syllable word.  It doesn’t matter if you use “have” or “possess”.  Simplify things.  “He possesses great intellect” is clumsy, but “He’s smart” is strong.  If you want to impress people with your vocabulary, write a thesaurus.

A great example of this is the title.  It’s a twist on the phrase “Fish are friends, not food,” from Finding Nemo.  The original phrase is five words and five syllables, and it rings so much better than my title, which is five words and fifteen syllables.

I confess, I’ll have a hard time with this.  This is one of the things that killed the first draft of Fathoming Egression, my work in progress; I would think up the strangest ways to say the most mundane things.  But I’ve found that it’s easier to think of small words quickly than large words, so with a little practice I’ll manage it.

What do you think?  Does short wording have anything to do with readability and pace?  Is this something you’ve noticed before?

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54 Comments

  1. I think that writing with short words is a style, as is writing with long words. If you’re writing a novel with a lot of tension, short, clipped words are a great way of showing the terseness of the situation. Long words communicate more time to speak and process information, which is why many people thing that they’re old-fashioned. It’s all in how the material is handled.

    Reply
    • Indeed… I thought about that too, but I looked over a few suspenseful action scenes as examples and they use the same length words as everywhere else. Is there a better example you can give me?

      Reply
      • I’ve never read War and Peace, I’m just speaking in general (Tolstoy is… monolithic). That’s what I’ve found. Maybe sentence length is more of a factor?

      • Probably. Going into repeated who/which clauses definitely slows things down. And it wasn’t in War and Peace that I looked for examples– just in case you were confused.

      • Oh. Yeah, sorry. I think that the reason is that “The bomb has to stop. I have to make it stop.” sounds a little bit more rushed than “I must disable the explosive device. I must arrest its progress.” sounds less urgent, although they’re saying the same thing.

      • Exactly. Short, clipped sentences and short, clipped vocabulary are great for tense scenes. My question is whether or not it’s better for use in every scene.

  2. Charley R

     /  December 29, 2012

    Readability is important, but I’d say (in typical situationist fashion) that it really depends on the author, and the book they’re writing. Some longer words are used regularly in general literature, and are far more evocative and accurate than some of their shorter counterparts. Also, if you’re dealing with certain types of characters, they might be more inclined to use different sorts of word. In my NaNovel, Ikarus, my narrator uses some pretty complex language in cases because those are words that he and the people around him have always used. On the other hand, other characters use very different language depending on their own circumstances and such.

    That said, for narrative on the whole, shorter is often better if you want a pacier book. For something richer, I’d argue for a little more time for detailled language and such. As I said – it’s dependent from author to author and book to book. Some loonies like me aren’t very good at remembering to stick to monosylables on occasion.

    Reply
  3. I agree with Charley on, “That said, for narrative on the whole, shorter is often better if you want a pacier book. For something richer, I’d argue for a little more time for detailled language and such.”

    I think shorter is generally better, but with a few longer words mixed in. I think longer words should be used sparingly, but it irritates me when I read a YA book that has all short words. I’m not in first grade, thank you very much.

    Reply
    • Yes. While I was brainstorming the post, I wrote a list of books that need various long word frequencies. YA was pretty far from easy reader there.

      Reply
  4. I personally prefer large words, I think of vocabulary as an art. But I suppose when I want to sit down and simply enjoy a story, that is extremely true. That’s (only part of) the reason I read King James Bible rather than more modern translations; I want to educate and expand my natural ability to handle syllables and long words :p

    Reply
    • So you enjoy verbose stories? Interesting.

      Reply
      • I do. Words are beautiful, particularly when placed in a clever way. While verbose writings may not be fast to read, they can be delightful. Although there are times that I am in the mood to just rest my brain and read a simpler, nice story.
        And there are some writings I’ve seen that had just too much.

      • Precisely. It’s better to start simple and build up to a respectable level than to start at incomprehensibility and inch downward.

  5. Nice post and good thoughts! Certainly if you have two ways of saying exactly the same thing, it’s better to keep it simple. On the other hand, if you can convey your meaning more accurately by using longer words, I would do so. My elusive ideal is to use big words not to show off, but to convey meaning more accurately. Also, as Charley and Nevillegirl have said, I guess word-length depends a lot on what you’re writing.

    On a side-note: I wonder how War and Peace was written in Russian…. Do you think the English translation could have shorter words than the original? In any case, that’s a book I should read some time — but it’s dauntingly thick!

    Reply
    • Exactly– don’t throw away strong words just to make smaller syllables.

      War and Peace is strange because though most of the words are minuscule there are quite a few that blow the mind. They’re enormous, Latin-based words I didn’t even have the heart to look up.

      Reply
      • Interesting….

        Well sesquippedalophobia looks more plausible to me, though I don’t know any Greek as my Dad does. Strangely, your breaking off the beginning has helped me to pronounce the word: I can easily pronounce sesquippedalophobia, and then I just have to add hippomonstro at the beginning.

      • Exactly. Once it’s half as long it’s much easier to wrap your mind around.

  6. I’m suspicious that Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is a frindle-type word. I showed it to my dad and he says that “hippo” means horse, “monstro” is the word from which we derive monster, “sesqui” means one-and-a-half, “podos” means foot — though he doesn’t know what pedalio means — and of course “phobia” is fear. So the word doesn’t really make sense…. Still, it’s pretty funny that the word for the fear of long words is so long.

    Reply
    • I believe the original word was “sesquippedalophobia”, to which “hippo” and “monstro” were added for special effect. But yes, it’s a real phobia.

      Reply
  7. I’d pay to hear somebody say that out loud and not sound like they’re choking.

    Reply
  1. I Scream, You Scream, We All Get Slaughtered By A Monster « This Page Intentionally Left Blank

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