Roger That: A few words on writing

August 17, 2012

Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing. 

In Praise of the 10-cent Word

By Roger Shirley

I understand the difference between writing in a conversational style and writing in a more formal style. And, uh, believe me, uh, obviously, most people, like, should not write like the way they talk. Nevertheless, business writing – especially in the world of public relations – would be better if we wrote closer to the way we talk.

Take the word “utilize.” Please. Yes, overutilization of the word is rampant – as is the amount of gobbledygook that finds its way into most business writing these days.

It seems that many people think the perfectly good verb “use” and other examples of plain English somehow cheapen their messages. “I have to use the bathroom” becomes “I must utilize the facilities” or, even more likely, “I am excited to be able to take advantage of this opportunity to utilize the robust indoor plumbing facilities.”

The timeless advice in The Elements of Style to use the simple word over the fancy has never been more valuable. “Do not be tempted by the twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

Rather than “ameliorate,” why not go with “improve”? Try “aware” rather than “cognizant.” “Facilitate” is a perfectly good word, but so is “help” or “ease.” Do you need something sent “expeditiously” or do you just need it “quickly”?

Yes, there are times when a writing assignment calls for sophistication, for depth, for grown-up professional analysis, and there’s no doubt that some twenty-dollar words are worth their weight in gold (“ubiquitous” comes to mind); but let’s not lose sight of what we are trying to do – communicate. Complex messages often can be stated in simple, concise terms. Really, they can.


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