Rewriting the news with stupendous verbiage in place of simple words

Saul Loeb/Pool photographic simulacrum via AP

California middle school teacher Leilen Shelton wants her writing students to eschew simple words like “good,” “said,” and “fun,” according to the Wall Street Journal. To demonstrate the problems with this dumb idea, I rewrote a news article about terrorism, replacing all the mundane words with longer ones.

Misguided writing teachers are responsible for much of the bullshit epidemic we now suffer. Students trained to gratuitously replace simple words with complex ones are part of the problem. In a survey of Stanford undergraduates, 86% admitted that they used complicated language in papers to sound more sophisticated. That’s dreadful.

“Said” is fine. So is “fun.” Sophisticated ideas are important. So is using the exact right word at the right moment. Sometimes the right word is a simple word.

To demonstrate, I’ve taken a perfectly good (yes, “good,” not “marvelous” or “spectacular”) article from the New York Times about President Obama’s speech last night and rewritten it based on the Shelton principle of avoiding simple words. You tell me if it’s better. Words in italic are “improved” from the original.

Obama Opines of Terrorist Commination: ‘We Will Subjugate It’

WASHINGTON — President Obama hankered on Sunday to placate jittery Americans proximate to the terrorist blitzkrieg last week in California, perorating to underscore the government’s campaign in opposition to an evolving commination.

Declaiming from a soapbox in the Elliptical Workspace, Mr. Obama acknowledged the heightened trepidation that succeeded an encroachment by a conjugal tandem in the preceding half-fortnight in San Bernardino, Calif., which he designated an undertaking of terrorism that had the guise of being enkindled, but not quarterbacked, by comrades of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“It is unambiguous that the twosome of them had moseyed along the caliginous boulevard of radicalization,” Mr. Obama verbalized, indicating Syed Rizwan Farook and his helpmate, Tashfeen Malik. “So this was an undertaking of terrorism contrived to extirpate unimpeachable proletarians.”

My apologies to thesaurus.com, which no one else should abuse to create this sort of bullshit. Please use “said.” Use “good.” Use “happy” and “go.” Use the right word, not the longer word. And all of us, from the most mundane cubicle to the lofty realm of the Elliptical Workspace, will be much happier.

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  1. I love this post, Josh! In 6th grade we had to use our spelling words in an article about the revolutionary war. I remember writing, “The British are impending!” Oh yes, I did. And my teacher did not flinch… That was a LONG time ago, and it’s ‘way worse now. Zig Ziglar made a point to speak on a 3rd grade level, and to admit it to his audiences. I guess we’re all too good for that now, or something.

  2. Thank you for this! Working in copywriting and publicity I often have team members from other departments asking me to “spice up the writing”. Sometimes simpler is better. You don’t want your readers spending more time trying figure out what a word means than actually understanding what you are trying to share with them.

  3. Good post – totally agree! “Use the right word, not the long word” is a good motto.

    Having said that, it’s sometimes a struggle to find the right words for my ideas.

  4. I so agree! The word that annoys me the most is “utilize.” I work in technical training and I do my best to get rid of it, but it seems to be everywhere. What’s wrong with the nice, simple word “use”?

  5. I’m going commit attempted fairness here. Our kids don’t read nearly as much as even we did, and they do need to be able to recognize at least some words of three syllables. This exercise would need a good deal of context to work, though. It might be simpler to have them read and discuss more…

  6. All we have now is a generation that can’t reply “your welcome” when you say “thank you”, they reply with “no problem” or “aha”!