Not long ago, the online Q&A at the Chicago Manual of Style posted this exchange:
Q. If an author uses a rare word like “prevaricators” when “liars” would be more clear, should an editor change it? The author’s audience is college graduates, not necessarily English or journalism majors.
A. Dumbing down someone’s prose should be done for a reason, never simply as a policy. A writer might use a five-dollar word for the sake of rhythm, humor, allusion, or precision. “Prevaricator” is a good word (and it isn’t the same as “liar,” although they overlap in meaning). It would be a shame to banish it from the language. So query it if you think “liars” is a better choice, but be prepared to say why.*
Writing and editing coaches love to hammer on using short words. But good teachers know that insisting on short words is merely a dramatic way to prepare students for the more refined message, which is to use the right word. And sometimes the right word is long. Nonetheless, some students (and for that matter, teachers) never move beyond lesson 1, inflexibly limiting themselves to monosyllables and taking umbrage with those who don’t.
Although Strunk and White are famously obnoxious on related points (e.g., omitting needless words), their advice on word choice is, sensibly, not to avoid long words, but to avoid “fancy” words. A fancy word, short or long, is one that’s inappropriate for the context. (Never mind that S&W themselves love fancy words and use them cheerfully. In The Elements of Style section on composition, for instance, they advise writers to have a “scheme of procedure,” where I might have suggested a “plan.” But maybe they want to sound bustling and authoritative.)
It’s easy to understand why long words get a bad rap. They have the power to simulate importance and to obscure meaning, perhaps the most dangerous of writing sins. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that all our most important freedoms depend ultimately on clarity in the written word. But “short” does not always equal “clear.”
In short, in word choice, as in other things, long can be just right.
*When that question came in, we briefly wondered whether it was a trap to
get us to admit indirectly that a previous answer had been badly written:
Q. In a sentence, a colon should always be preceded by an independent clause. Why doesn’t the Chicago Manual state this explicitly? All your examples follow the principle. Why doesn’t the manual just say that the introductory clause has to be independent?
A. Because we’re a bunch of spineless and ineffectual prevaricators? Or because there are times when a colon need not be preceded by an independent clause? A case in point: this one.But surely no one would do that.