Word Choice (Writing Simplistically)

by Craig Shrives

Word Choice in Business Writing

Don't use words nobody understands. Have the confidence to use simple words. As a rule, the right words for a business document tend to be the words that derive from the Germanic side of our language rather than the French side.

Put another way, the right words for your business documents are the ones that you use when talking at home. They're not the ones you've accumulated to look good at work.

Why You Should Use "Germanic Root" Words

Consider the words axiomatic and obvious. Which one sounds the more professional? What about ameliorate and improve? What about acquire and get? Well, the answer to the question depends on what "professional" means.

If professional means sounding like a 19th century lawyer, then the first words are the winners. But professional does not mean that. To most people, it means being good at your job to the point of being paid for it. Note I said "being good at your job" and not "looking good at your job." They are different things.

If you communicate your message clearly, you are being good at your job. If you make it hard for your message to be understood because you've chosen unnatural words, you are not. So, to be professional, natural-sounding words trump posh words.

So, what are natural-sounding words and what are posh words? You will know by instinct which words you can get away with. If you think a word sounds a bit too contrived, then it probably is. However, here's a key point:
  • Germanic words sound natural, and French words sound posh.
Why is this true? Here's the history:
The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the fifth century caused an influx of Germanic words into Britain that were adopted by the general public. These words became the words of the everyday man and are still very natural sounding to the British ear. However, our language was also affected by another invasion, which started in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings. It was a war between Duke William I (Norman-French) and King Harold II (English). William won, as we know, and it wasn't long before we had a new French-speaking aristocracy. As a result, French-derived words (which often came from Latin) were the words of the upper classes. So, Germanic words sound natural, and French words sound posh. That idea still holds true today.
Look at these examples:
  • Better from Besser (Germanic)
  • Ameliorate from Amelior (French)
  • Riding from Reiten (Germanic)
  • Equestrian from Equitation (French)
As a general rule, the Germanic words will be short and easily understood. Often Germanic verbs (doing words) will be made up of more than one word (e.g., to look after, to put off, to get together). French-derived words tend to be a little longer and a bit highbrow. Sometimes the meaning is clear (e.g., acquire, obtain), but sometimes they push the bounds of most people's understanding (e.g., militate, mitigate). French-derived verbs will often be single words (e.g., nurture, postpone, congregate).

People like to read Germanic words because that's how they speak.
"Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all."
(Sir Winston Churchill)
However, writers like to use "French" words (they're actually called Latinate words) because it makes them look more classy and more educated. So, there is a balance to be struck.

The first ruling is easy: don't use words nobody understands, like concatenate. After that, it's up to you to decide what proportion of Germanic and Latinate words you go for. Here's a good rule of thumb:
  • Write how you speak.
Read more about writing how you speak.

Contractions are words like don't, isn't, won't, and can't. (In other words, they are words that have had letters replaced by apostrophes to reflect how we speak.) Should you use contractions in formal writing? Well, that depends who you are. I was in the military. I can tell you that in 25 years of bashing out formal documents, I have never used a contraction not one. It was forbidden. Contractions don't fit with the image the military seeks to portray in its formal correspondence. Hey, don't get me wrong. I've used thousands of contractions in day-to-day emails and memos. But, in those circumstances, I'm representing me, not my unit or the military.

However, if I were to work for someone like Virgin or Red Bull, both of whom like to engage with their customers using very natural-sounding language, then I'm sure I'd be littering my work with contractions.
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