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In Praise of Precise, Simple Words

Lately I have been noticing a lot of unnecessarily complex words in the samples I read for business writing classes. Here is a sampling of 10 words I have seen, along with simpler words that match each writer’s meaning:

mitigate = lessen, relieve

utilize = use

endeavor = effort, work

superfluous = extra, excess

customarily = usually

abbreviated = short

additional = other

concordance = agreement

surmise = guess

fungible = flexible, interchangeable

Most business readers would stumble over the words concordance and fungible. Many would wonder about superfluous and surmise. Some would need to guess the meaning of mitigate. 

The other five words–utilize, endeavor, customarily, abbreviated, additional–are simply longer words than necessary. When business readers want quick, concise messages, sentences filled with long words do not meet their needs.

I asked one of the writers, who used several of the words listed above, whether he thought about what his readers needed. His answer surprised me: He knew I would be reading his work, and he wanted to impress me!

But I appreciate crisp, clear, short words that communicate the message. I read business documents for information–not for impressive vocabulary.

How about you? Do you like an occasional impressive word in the documents you read? Or is simplicity your preference? How many of the 10 words listed above did you recognize instantly?



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

17 comments on “In Praise of Precise, Simple Words”

  • Hi Lynn:

    My brand is all about simple. 🙂 However, I do feel that some words are used so much (or utilized) 😉 that they become the norm. Utilize is a good example of that. I see it everywhere.

    Personally, I prefer simple. 🙂

  • “Brevity is the soul of wit,” as the man said. I absolutely agree that concise writing and simplified wording are essential to effective communication of complex ideas.

  • I’m not a fan of “utilize” either, but I think the idea is to convey a stronger benefit than you would receive from just “using” something. For example, when you “utilize” the software, it may sound like you’re getting more out of it (it is somehow more useful) than if you simple “use” the software.

  • This is actually kind of a tough one for me. Like PhilEH’s explanation of the difference between “use” and “utilize” above, the shades of meaning in various words are very important to me. When I write, I like to find just the right words to express exactly what I am trying to convey (see, case in point- at first I had the word “say” instead of “convey,” but I changed it because I feel “convey” fits better).
    But I am learning to recognize that business writing is primarily about crafting clear, concise messages that are easy for your reader to understand, not about “finding just the right word.” And this blog has helped me greatly in that area. Thanks for another great reminder, Lynn!

  • Hi, Cathy, Besimplycontent, PhilEH, and Lisa Marie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I don’t believe I have ever used the word “utilize.” I just can’t “utilize” when I can “use.” Typing the word twice took extra seconds, and my fingers fumbled over the z and the correct order of u-t-i-l. I do not believe “utilize” conveys more strength than “use,” but perhaps its meaning will shade toward strength if we view the word that way.

    Lisa Marie, I agree with you about shades of meaning. Like you, I want to choose the perfect word. I agree with you about “convey” vs. “say.” “Convey” captures the idea of communicating more than “say” does in business.

    Our war against bureaucratic words continues!


  • After reading my initial response, I must say you have hit a nerve with me.

    To specifically answer your questions:
    1) See * below.
    2) I don’t want to see “impressive” words that are included strictly to be impressive. I do like to see communication that is clear, whether or not it uses “big words.”
    3) Simplicity for simplicity’s sake is not my preference but neither is contrived complexity. Writing should be as simple as it can be and still be interesting and convey the point. I believe this simplicity is your main point in using the term “Unnecessarily complex.” I do enjoy reading fictional works that expand my vocabulary. Sherri S. Tepper almost always includes one word in her novels that I have to look up. I understand that writing a book is not business writing and has different rules and goals and you wouldn’t write this information for those authors.
    4) I recognized all of the words instantly and use about a third or half of them regularly. I would have looked up concordance before I used it and would probably not use it – it is not in my day to day vocabulary.

    As Lisa Marie says, sometimes one uses words to get a very specific meaning. Surmise and guess don’t mean exactly the same thing to me. I wouldn’t use them interchangeably. I don’t agree that fungible, as I would use it, means flexible. Interchangeable comes close but is not exact. I come from a background where fungible is used daily and has a specific use.

    *It makes me angry when I can’t use my normal, everyday vocabulary to communicate. I understand the importance of clarity and brevity (big words to some) but at what cost? Where is the line between clear and brief and dumbing down your message to the point of losing your true meaning? And I acknowledge that dumbing down is not what you are suggesting.

    I had a former friend who thought I used words to impress her! Or at least she did until she read my dream journal, written in the middle of the night, in the dark, for myself only, and read several words that she considered “big.” I don’t use big words to impress anyone any more than a dancer doesn’t trip on flat ground or run into walls regularly to impress me. I’m not going to feel embarrassed that people don’t know every word I use and I’m not dumbing down my communication just so people can feel better about themselves. I wouldn’t expect a dancer to become clumsy and less graceful just because she or he had to walk next to me. I understand this sort of dumbing down is not what you’re suggesting but in some ways it feels like it.

    I do try to go through my written work and substitute for words that are unnecessarily complex and don’t add to the point. I have one author I edit that regularly uses words that I find unnecessarily complex. My suggestions that he use more direct, clear words are not well taken. I’m not pedantic, or I don’t think I am. I do consider my audience.

    Sorry to be so passionate about something trivial to most people but I don’t think I should be embarrassed or have to apologize for my vocabulary. I guess I should treat it like a loaded gun and only let it go off in appropriate situations.

  • Hi, Jennifer. Thank you so much for taking the time to express your view–and with such passion. Brava! (That’s a word some may wonder about, but I am writing to YOU.)

    I agree with virtually all your points. The only important difference I see is that I never feel I am dumbing down. I feel I am writing for the widest possible audience, and I use a vocabulary that will not send business readers to their dictionaries. I want them to stay with my message.

    I regularly ask class participants whether they recognize about half of the words I listed. You might be surprised how many professionals do not recognize “superfluous,” “mitigate,” and “surmise,” among other words. Perhaps they were not English majors.

    If “fungible” is used regularly in your business or division, then it is probably part of everyone’s vocabulary. I taught a class recently in which one person used the word “fungibility” in a piece of writing, and no one in the class of about 15 people knew what it meant. They were all from the same company–but not the same unit. That instance brings up the issue of writing for people who may not be in your division.

    You, Jennifer, consider your audience. You choose words that your audience will understand. You edit the work of someone who uses unnecessarily complex language. You are doing all the right things.

    Thank you for articulating your position so beautifully.

    In other words, thanks for doing a good job stating your view.


  • Although I don’t particularly care for a LOT of “big” words, I do feel we should expand our vocabulary. As William F. Buckley once said when asked why doesn’t he use English words in his writings which were always full of those “big” words… they ARE English words and everyone one is in the dictionary. I happen to agree with him but would draw the line if someone was using them just to impress… how shallow! In answer to your question, I recognized all 10 of these words and actually knew their meaning which sorta surprised me because I don’t use “big” words very often. I received an email the other day from a co-worker who had stopped by my desk and wondered why I wasn’t there. I wrote back that I was out on my afternoon constitutional… he wrote back that he had to look up the word and found it meant stroll/walk. He said he was impressed that I sometimes use “big” words and that it expanded his mind. So I guess sometimes it’s worth it.

  • Hi, Mary. Thanks for the excellent example. Telling a colleague you were on your afternoon constitutional had a positive outcome. I like it!

    Sending an email to a large group and mentioning your afternoon constitutional would probably not work as well because of the varying needs of your readers.

    I do not think the brilliant William F. Buckley Jr. would be successful as a business writer in one of our companies today. As a thinker, yes. As a strategist, perhaps. But as a business communicator in a fast-moving organization with customers and employees around the world? I don’t think so.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on expanding one’s vocabulary. I love language, and I agree with you.


  • Hi Lynn.
    I am an English learner and I work in an American company. We speak our mother language, but I have to write e-mail in English. I see and use ‘big’ word sometimes because most of us think it’s a good way to show your boss and colleagues that you are good at English. I still need to read and practice a lot to write fluent and beautiful sentences as a native speaker. Using ‘big’ words it’s much easier. Do you think it’s harder for an English learner to improve English and expand vocabulary by using simple words? And is it a good way to show your English level?

  • Hello, Zoey. I apologize for my delay in responding to you. I did not have a quick answer when I read your comment. I still do not, since I am not an expert in learning the English language.

    I believe writing business messages with correct, clear, simple words is an art. Therefore, I do not think that using big words is a good way to show your English level. It is too easy to misuse a word.

    If the goal is clear communication, I suggest keeping it simple.

    If the goal is developing your skills in English, I suggest that you ask an expert in learning English as a foreign language.

    I am sorry I do not have a more complete answer for you.


  • Thank You for Your articles, I have had the pleasure of reading a few of them thus far, and I have liked what I have read.

    Regarding the open question, just only fungible was unfamiliar to me, despite not being native to English, nor having any formal education in writing. Yet to me, they appear as to be a part of basic vocabulary.

    I also have to work in English, like Zoey Wang. Virtually all email correspondence takes place in English and occasionally I am called upon to produce documents that may be distributed outside our company.

    I personally have never felt that I need to find “big words” to use. Instead I have blended into the background by adopting the style and vocabulary already used in all the correspondence and documentation. Quite frankly, I cannot even recall that I would have ever struggled with words.

    Is it really so that native English speakers do not embrace the expressive power of vocabulary to even that extent?

    I have never heard complaints about the material that we produce, but this article does give me a reason to pause and ponder – perhaps this is a matter that needs some company wide attention. Personally, until now, I have been almost solely concerned about the correctness of my grammar (native English speaking proof readers leave such a mess of red, whenever their services are used). Food for the thought, certainly!

  • Hello, Jani. Thank you for your comment and your interesting question: “Is it really so that native English speakers do not embrace the expressive power of vocabulary to even that extent?”

    People I work with want to get results with their writing, especially email. If a message contains one long, complex word after another, those words will slow down communication.

    It is not that I ignore “the expressive power of vocabulary.” Instead, I embrace the power of simple words used well.


  • This was a great read, especially the comments.

    FYI – If you sent me an email that said you were on your afternoon constitutional, I would think you meant bowel movement. LOL

  • Shandel, you are welcome.

    Here’s a suggestion: Use just one idea per sentence. For example, write these two sentences:

    All I can say is thank you for the knowledge. For a long time I thought I was doing it right.


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