Imagine this: You’re a judge of a high school poetry contest. Not sure how this happened, maybe you were enticed by free food, a stimulating Saturday night and PTA moms; either way, you’re in this position. All of a sudden, one student steps up and gives the most flowery poem you have ever heard. It’s called “Summer Mist: I am the Human Transistor.” You’ve never been more confused in your life. The poem has no concrete narrative and sounds like a compilation of every word in the “12 syllable” section of Rhyme Zone.
Yet, this will be the poem that wins. Unless you are Homi K. Bhabha.
I am a lover of big words. My dreams are filled with words like “atomic,” “archaic,” “penultimate” and “tangential.” That being said, with great words comes great responsibility. Writers should prioritize making their pieces accessible and concise while setting aside ideas of “sounding smart” or impressing others. No one should win a poetry contest for reading a thesaurus. Likewise, we shouldn’t seek out writing for ego boosts and validation.
“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. and “Ballot or the Bullet” from by Malcolm X are well-known speeches given to crowd sizes of 200,000 and 3,000, respectively. Given these large audiences, it is impressive that each speaker was able to successfully play on the knowledge and collective experiences of each individual person they spoke to. Furthermore, both speakers were able to convey the world, and paint a more ideal world using metaphors, persistent symbolism and other figurative language. One would expect that these speeches, at lengths of 2,000 to 4,000 words — and with such powerful rhetoric and description, would be complex and filled with big words. After all, these men are seen as great thinkers and intellectuals.
In scanning both “I Have a Dream” and “Bullet or the Ballet” through an automated readability checker, which uses seven formulas to measure syllable, character count and word complexity, I discovered that neither of these writers sacrificed accessible language for the sake of imagery or argument. Rather, each speech was rated as suitable for U.S. middle-school or early high school students. X and King had an average syllable count of one syllable per word, with 73% to 75% of their words being one syllable, and just 10% of each speech had three or more syllables, which the system deemed “hard words.”
Some may retort that speeches are meant to be more simple than other pieces of writing, and that is cause for these statistics. For this reason, I also put a few short stories through the readability checker. Two of my favorites, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain showed similar results despite being fully narrative and less contemporary than the speeches from X and King. Mark Twain’s readability, an 11th-grade reading level, was remarkably higher than Edgar Allen Poe’s readability of a fifth-grade level. What is important, however, is that neither short story went above a high school level of comprehension despite the fact that the readability checker’s scale ranges from first grade to college graduate.
Thus, in speech and literature, big words are not an accurate indicator of good storytelling or persuasion. Coupled with the fact that 54% of American adults read at or below a sixth grade reading level, when do we find time for using big words?
Like I said earlier, I love big words. I love when talented writers know how to replace the adverb “very” in ways that bring out an adjective’s beautiful eyes, so to speak. Being curious about words and their roots can lead to better understanding and communicating ourselves, our identity and experiences. We should use big words when we need them and use simpler words unless we have reason not to. Feeling better than others — or wanting to be perceived that way — is not a proper reason.