Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

In Defense of the $10 Word

with 5 comments

The quintessential cantankerous old man.

The quintessential cantankerous old man.

Ever heard the saying that you shouldn’t use a ten-dollar word when a two-cent one will do?

I agree. There’s no point in tossing giant Latinate words into your writing when a simple, single-syllable will do.

He masticated the tuna? Nah. He just chewed it.

Using big words needlessly can be a turnoff for your readers. It can muddy your meaning while making your writing sound stilted at best, possibly irritating and pompous. Plus, you have to be careful because sometimes that giant word you think means one thing really means something else and could be a big embarrassment. (Insert mastication jokes here.)

So sure, it’s often wise to avoid the big words when a little one will do.

But notice the qualifier on that statement: “when a little one will do.” There are often times when that ten-dollar word will do so much better than the smaller one. Part of the beauty of our language is that so many words have shades of meaning that go beyond their basic definition. And you can employ those ten-dollar words to eke out a little something extra from your writing.

Think about the thesaurus entries for the word grumpy: irritable, crusty, cantankerous, cranky, irascible, ornery, prickly … the list goes on.

So an old man might be grumpy. An irascible old man might seem more like a time bomb that’s waiting to explode with anger. A prickly one might have less anger, but is more stand-offish than someone who’s simply cranky.

A cantankerous old man brings up a slightly different image: in this one, he’s not just sulking in his rocking chair. A cantankerous old man seems more aggressive and almost gleefully argumentative.

(Plus, I just like to say cantankerous. It’s such a fun word. Seems almost onomatopoeic  … uh-oh, I think I smell future blog post about onomatopoeia.)

Let’s try another, simpler word. How about best? A simple word we use all the time, and it works perfectly well. But does it always give that added clarity you could use in your writing? Is Jimmy Page the best guitarist? (I think it’s quite likely.)  Or is he a consummate guitarist? (I think so, again.) Sure, there’s a slight difference in meaning, though either way, he freaking shreds it.

Was that story the best novel you’ve read? Or was it the quintessential novel? Quintessential is a fantastic word, and when you want to express that level of specificity, no other word will do.

I’d say that the words cantankerous, consummate, irascible and quintessential are all ten-dollar words. You could get by with the everyday grumpy and best, but why should you have to?

Yes, 90% of the time a simpler, more common word is going to be your better choice. But sometimes those big, expensive words give a much clearer meaning. So consider what you really are trying to say and whether more specific language will help you communicate it and add color to your writing. Go ahead, use the ten-dollar words – they’re certainly worth the price.

So what about you? What are your favorite ten-dollar words?

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Written by Nathanael Green

April 13, 2009 at 8:39 am

5 Responses

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  1. Hey Nate,

    To your point, it’s tough to draw a line between good word choice and literary snobbery. I think Americans on the whole prefer plainer, more down-to-earth language. Why that is, I don’t know. Perhaps this began historically as a way for Americans to differentiate themselves from the British and then it became institutionalized. But that’s just a guess on my part.

    Brian O'Rourke

    April 14, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    • It’s certainly a fine line between the two. And I think different people will draw it at different places. I just hear too often the “rule” that simple is always better. I’d hope that people see the variety in our language and feel confident enough to use it.

      Though, in reality, I’ll sometimes communicate with only grunts and movie quotes. But that’s just another form of variety, right? … So I got that going for me. Which is nice. ;-)

      Nathanael Green

      April 15, 2009 at 10:21 am

  2. […] In Defense of the $10 Word […]

  3. […] In Defense of the $10 Word […]

  4. My favorite writing quote is this gem from Mark Twain: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” He may have been referring to misused magnanimous words as second cousins, but I think this also applies to eschewing the little words when Brobdingnagian ones are too mellifluous to pass up.

    (And yes, magnanimous was a joke.)

    Kevin Dickinson

    October 26, 2009 at 11:28 pm


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