A few days back I ran across a small paperback my wife had lying around. It was The Miracle of Languageby Richard Lederer and was published in ’91. It’s a quick read, musings on English and it’s use but one chapter hit me. It was “The Case for Short Words”. The chapter was fittingly brief, only four and a half pages where the author praises the grace and strength of short words over the plodding ambiguity created by poorly used long words.
Apparently Lederer is also a high school English teacher. Believing wholly in the power of short words he sets his ninth graders a task. They are to write a composition, anything they want, but they can’t use words with more than one syllable. Now “omit needless words” is one thing but monosyllables only? Thing is the author posted the work of the ninth graders and, freed from the pressure to use ‘fancy’ vocabulary they write clear and heartfelt pieces. Lederer gives two examples and they’re good. Now I love me some ten-dollar words so this exercise sounded worth a try–break out of the comfort zone and all that. I gave it a shot on the ‘one-pagers’ we do in my writing group.
The key-word was aperitif so I was already starting with a fancy multisyllable word. The result was interesting. It was a little awkward at first but the trick seemed to be rhythm. With single syllables the sentences seem to need a meter to get the flow right and it felt a bit like trying to write poetry. I doubt I’ll give up all my high falootin words but anyone who gets distracted trying to think of the exactly perfect word to describe the color of the red bricks could just say ‘brick red’ and keep typing. I’ll post it below if you want to read it but it’s just a vignette, not a complete story. And hey, it’s short.