How to Choose Between a Big Word and a Small Word

This week’s video offers some thoughts about the benefits of 25 cent words over $100 ones—and vice versa.

Video Transcript:

The debate between the worthiness of 25 cent words versus 100 dollar words is ongoing among authors. Some of us argue that simplicity is always best, if only because we can’t risk confusing our readership with unfamiliar language. Others among us want to embrace the full scope of the English vocabulary and utilize the impressive and specific big words. This is an argument that rages all the way from the ranks of the newbies to the halls of the masters. Contemporary Pulitzer winners William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway had an infamous exchange, in which Faulkner said Hemingway could never be accused of using “a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” To which Hemingway shot back, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

In general, I am huge vocabulary nut. I love the big words, the unusual words, the arcane words. I love the discovery of a word that perfectly describes something which might otherwise have required half a dozen smaller words. I love it when I see that word used correctly by other authors, and I love it when I get the chance to use it myself. But restraint is always the order of the day. An author’s choice of words should always be guided by the requirements of the story. George Orwell’s commandment to “never use a long word where a short one will do” is good advice. Even better, however, is the common sense stricture to never use a word that your narrators wouldn’t use.

You don’t want your hillbilly characters talking like college graduates. I recently read a book that featured poor backwoods characters who remarkably managed to cram words such as irrefutable, cosmolined, effaced, obliterated, carborundum, progenitorless, and apotheosis—all into one paragraph. So, by all means, don’t let the big words die, but also don’t kill them through misuse.

Tell me your opinion: Do you believe unusual words should be embraced or avoided?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I enjoy playing with words. Recently, I used “pandiculation” to describe the first thing the Dragon does when he awakes in the morning. “His pandiculations were always spectacular as he…” (the line continues describing his twisting and flexing). My Alpha Readers often “mark” what they think are my excessive word choices, but they left that one alone. I like the balance and rhythm of the five-syllable “pandiculations” with the four- syllable “spectacular.”

    One issue that concerns me is differences between people’s vocabularies. What to me is a common word may be exotic to someone else. In another scene, a lightning strike singes the Dragon. The protagonist finds a “fulgurite” where the Dragon had been standing on the beach. One of my Alpha Readers made a note that he had to look up fulgurite in the dictionary, but he did not complain about my use of the word.

    Several of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors require me to have a dictionary at my side as I read their work. For me, that is part of the fun.

  2. “Part of the fun” describes my reaction as well (as long as I don’t feel the author is showing off or using vocabulary in a way that impedes rather than furthers the story). I look to reading for much for than entertainment. If I’m not challenged to learn and grow in some way, vocabulary included, the book is probably going to be a disappointment.

  3. I have grown up with an extended vocabulary, so I find that I have to create characters that allow me to use my normal vernacular. Small words are imprortant as well, but I enjoy learning new words and stretching my mind with bigger more specific words.

  4. You sum up my philosophy as well. In order to love the big words, it’s necessary to love the small words as well.

  5. The answer to “Do you believe unusual words should be embraced or avoided?” is a resounding and unambiguous, yes.

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