How to Choose Between a Big Word and a Small Word

The debate between the worthiness of 25-cent words versus 100-dollar words is ongoing among authors. Some argue that simplicity is always best, if only because we can’t risk confusing readers with unfamiliar language. Others want to embrace the full scope of the English vocabulary and utilize 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. Pulitzer winners William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway supposedly had an exchange, in which Faulkner said Hemingway:

…has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.

To which Hemingway shot back:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?

Speaking personally, I am a 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 is still good advice:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Even better, however, is the common-sense stricture to never use a word your narrator wouldn’t use. After all, you don’t want your hillbilly characters talking like college graduates. It’s true that Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust featured poor backwoods characters who remarkably managed to cram (all into one paragraph) words such as “irrefutable,” “cosmolined,” “effaced,” “obliterated,” “carborundum,” “progenitorless,” and “apotheosis.” But we can’t all be Faulkner.

So, by all means, don’t let the big words die, but also don’t kill them through misuse.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you believe unusual words should be embraced or avoided? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. Great question. I think that totally depends on the tone, voice, and style of the story being told. Holes by Louis Sachar is very simply told yet very powerful. Shatter Me is not a great read due to the actual story but because of all the rhetorical devices she uses and the word choice.

  2. I agree with Laura Pauling, and would like to add that it depends on the characters as well, particularly for first-person and third-person limited perspectives. A ten year old would probably say, “Too much! Take some back.” while a college professor might say, “Remove the superfluous amount.”

  3. I admit to being a proponent of larger words, when they are more apt. I think ultimately, though, I end up choosing my words primarily on the basis of sentence and image flow. Does the sentence flow better with a longer word, or do short choppy words relate better to the image (or character) being presented?

    Then I let my fiancee read it. If she says: “No one’s going to know what that means,” I usually reword it, either to chop the word or give some indicators of what the word means (huge fan of teaching new words through context, right here). And it usually all works out in the end.

  4. I love big words, especially if they have specific, unique meanings. They must always fit the character. Scientists, professors, philosophers, etc. should use some jargon in their scenes, just as uneducated, common-laborer types should use dialect and slang idiomatic to their realities.

    I don’t have a problem with the narrative being more erudite, especially when the POV is third-person and switches between characters from scene to scene. Then I think a consistent narrative voice holds the story together better. But if the story is first-person POV, the narrative vocabulary must fit the character.

    All that said, I wouldn’t risk intentionally alienating readers by “writing over their heads” merely for the sake of exercising my vocabulary chops. Each story is unique and the overall effect is that the vocabulary used should enhance the telling of the story, not be a distraction that takes the reader out of the story world.

  5. Absolutely a brilliant topic, and well laid out. Thank you! I read somewhere this week that writers should not assume their audiences are any less intelligent than they are. I think this is pretty good advice. Consider your audience, maximize the language, and be artful and effective. Each of us will strike a unique formula, which is what makes reading so wonderful. Thanks for this!!

  6. Definitely depends on the work itself, the genre, the characters, and the audience for which the work is intended. But I don’t mind looking up new words – which is probably why I have more than one dictionary.

  7. @Laura: Our audience is definitely a factor. We wouldn’t necessarily use the same vocabulary in a Middle Grade book as we would in one aimed at adults.

    @Sam: Spot on! Our characters should always be at the heart of our word choices. That’s why it’s so important for us to dig down deep and find that part of them that speaks to us.

    @Daniel: Beta readers are invaluable in helping us figure out which words are working and which aren’t. But I always take their advice with a grain of salt, since a word that is unfamiliar to one person won’t necessarily be so to everyone.

    @chitrader: As both a reader and a writer, I love jargon and slang. Nothing personifies a character better than person-, job-, or era-specific language.

    @Green Goose: There’s nothing readers detest more than having a writer talk down at them. We should always assume readers are *at least* as smart as we are. Usually they’re smarter!

    @Mshatch: When I was a teen, I started writing down and looking up every unfamiliar word. I don’t do this so much anymore (thank you, Dictionary app!), but it was tremendously helpful in expanding and solidifying my vocabulary.

  8. I like Hemmingway’s style. The Sun lso Rises and Old Man and the Sea are among my very favorite books >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. All in all, I have to say I prefer Hemingway to Faulkner myself. He never achieves the beauty of prose that Faulkner does, but he also doesn’t clog his stories with poetic naval-gazing and other artistic obstructions.

  10. I love using big words with expansive meanings. But I’ve learned to use a simpler vocabulary in my story-writing. I occasionally use a “hundred-dollar word”, but only in a context that reveals the meaning of the word.
    I remember only too well in my younger days, reading books with big words, and getting lost half-way into page 1.

    Thnx for a thought-provoking article, KM.

  11. Our own experiences as readers are often our best guide. If we can look objectively at a piece and realize that the vocabulary would be off-putting even to us, we know changes have to made.

  12. It depends on the character. A character who is a word buff, might use the $100 words, much to the annoyance of the other characters. Could have comic results. 🙂 But the character in your example who used several $100 in one paragraph, that was out of character for him, and it would probably cause me to hurl the book for being unrealistic.

  13. I love big words, but it depends on the piece. This blog entry was excellent and reminded me of a lesson one of my English professors tried to teach us. For the final, we needed to write a conversation between three of the authors we studied that semester. Each writer had to speak in his own writing style. That lesson has stayed with me. Each writer has their own voice and should be sure their characters do, too.

  14. @Lorna: For all that readers enter a book to escape realism, they’re usually sticklers for avoiding the unrealistic. It’s a delicate balance to maintain.

    @Marianne: Exercises in which we imitate the styles of other authors are always instructive. I imagine writing a conversation between Faulkner and Hemingway would stretch us all a little bit!

  15. The real crux of the matter, which you touched on, is not whether bigger or smaller words are better. Size has no bearing on the worth of a word. The real issue here is the precision of a word, which is an art that I think modern English speaking society is losing rapidly. No one speaks precisely anymore and so few people write precisely anymore. And while small words can be precise I do think there is a correlation between longer or more infrequently used words and precision of expression.

    But I don’t think you should go looking for such words when you’re writing, because then they aren’t coming from your voice. I think that if you want to write precisely you first have to train yourself to think and speak precisely.

  16. Well said. Ultimately, precision is exactly what it comes down to. If a word, long or otherwise, isn’t helping to refine the point of your sentence, then it’s not doing its job and should be expunged. Very often, an appropriate long word will take the place of three or four smaller words.

  17. This is an excellent discussion. We want our characters to speak in a manner true to their identities. I write multi-genre categories, and even when writing Orphan Dreams, a poetry book, I had to decide whether to use plain-talk words or a more advanced vocabulary. In this case, I chose plain-talk words so that the emotion and visual image would not be obscured. However, if I were to write a different book, I would adapt the vocabulary to the purpose of the book. There is no reason why we should have to stay with one choice for all our works.

  18. Words create associations. If a word is a $ 5 synonym of a shorter, more direct word, but also serves the overall intended image better, then use it. There are certainly situations where the word “promulgate,” for example, is more appropriate than just saying someone “told” some people something. That being said, 8 times out of 10 you’re better off just being straightforward, especially within the narrative (it’s important to specify within the narrative, because you may want to use extremely flowery language for a particular character’s dialogue. Some people talk this way, and so this builds a sense of who that character is – for example, if one of your characters is a James Joyce loving, talentless asshole who talks way to much). You create a stronger, less encumbered image that way. Simple language can still be poetic – especially when you did the perfect action verb to describe the way in which something happens. Basically, it’s not about whether it’s better to use flowery or sparse words. It’s about using the right words based on the situation – and in my opinion, the right word will be the simplest, most straightforward the majority of the time

  19. Personally, I find I can ‘get into the story’ quicker when the words are simple. So I tend to try to write that way too. However changing the ‘voice’ of the character is a great tool and makes me feel like I’m part of the story:)
    Thanks for this post…very helpful:)


  20. Thanks for sharing. I complete agree. I find myself always wanting to show off with an impressive word, when it is very often unnecessary, and then have to back off. Love your vlogs!


  21. @Susan: Indeed, there really isn’t a “choice” per se. There are just words. One man’s obscure word is another man’s everyday word. I know an author who was scolded by a reader for using difficult words such “anatomy.” Go figure.

    @Anonymous: I agree. Everyday words are “everyday” for a reason. They’re blue-collar, hard-working words that get down in the dirt of our language and get the job done. But black-tie words also have their place in the right venue.

    @Lorna: Words and the reactions to them are just as subjective among readers as they are among authors. Personally, I love complicated language. I love lyric prose, and I’ll read a book just for that, even if the story is less than stellar (not, of course, that I’m recommending less-than-stellar storylines).

    @James: Since most of us writers are (or at least consider ourselves!) to be pretty smart people, the temptation to show off waggles itself in front of all of us from time to time.

  22. I think publishers and/or editors can sometimes influence an author one way or the other. In my first MG novel I had a few big words – dessicated, humiliated etc that my heroes aged 12-13 used. The publisher (American)then said kids that age wouldn’t understand and I should make my characters a bit older.I argued but finally surrendered, against my better judgement, because I did not want to ‘dumb down’ the text. So, there are other opinions that can sway an author.

  23. I have to admit, I’m a fan of short simple words. I believe they can pack as much meaning and emotion as the long ambicious ones. I enjoy a simple message, it’s a personal preference.

  24. @Fiona: When it comes to age groups, editors usually know what they’re talking about.

    @Jane: Nothing wrong with that. It’s hard to go wrong with simplicity.

  25. 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.

  26. “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.

  27. 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.

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

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

  30. If the audience is the general public, I believe unusual words should be avoided. It angers me for my reading to be halted by an unusual word that takes me out of the story for no good reason.

  31. Anthony Marin says

    my writing mind-set is always to use word appropriation.
    What’s the most appropriate word suitable.
    Be it I choose to add flare or a symmetrical style.
    Style is my passion .

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.