How many words do we need to communicate?

CIPR trainer Lorraine Forrest-Turner asks: “Is less really more?”

How many words do we need to communicate? Surprisingly few, it would seem. While the Oxford English Dictionary lists the meaning of over 600,000 words, most of us get by on 20,000 – and just 100 words account for around half of what we say and write. So what are the benefits of expanding our vocabulary? Would knowing that an ‘aglet’ is the small plastic tube at the end of a shoelace make us better communicators or simply pretentious ones?

Many years ago, when I worked in Audiology at Woolmanhill Hospital in Aberdeen, my colleagues and I used to read the Reader’s Digest’s It Pays To Increase Your Word Power. (There were always Reader’s Digests lying around the waiting rooms.) I was pretty hopeless at it and never remembered any of the words afterwards so I developed a defensive ‘what’s the point of learning words you’re never going to use’ attitude.

Years later, when I trained as a journalist and copywriter, I reaffirmed my belief that ‘big words’ were baffling at best and conceited at worst and became an ambassador for Plain English.

Today, all of my writing courses encourage students to abandon ‘we regret to inform you’, ‘deferred success’ and ‘an incident of concerted indiscipline’ and opt for ‘we’re sorry to say’, ‘failure’ and ‘a riot’. I strongly believe that if you write business emails, press releases, information guides, instructions or briefing documents, Plain English is, without doubt, the language for making things understandable on first reading.

Seven word conversation

I also advocate conciseness. Why use 20 words if you can say it in five? This is particularly true in everyday speech where, coupled with the benefits of non-verbal communication (tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc) so much can be said with so few.

I recently overheard a perfectly understandable conversation between two (slightly inebriated) young women in a pub toilet. They used a grand total of SEVEN words. Here’s how it went.

“I was worried,” called Girl 1, outside of cubicle to Girl 2 inside cubicle.

“There was no loo rolls,” called Girl 2.

“I was worried,” repeated Girl 1.

“There was no loo rolls,” explained Girl 2.

“I was worried,” reiterated Girl 1 to Girl 2, emerging from cubicle.

“There was no loo rolls,” replied Girl 2, betraying a certain degree of annoyance at her friend’s lack of understanding.

“I was worried,” restated Girl 1, displaying increasing frustration at her friend’s lack of understanding.

“There was no loo rolls,” said Girl 2.

“I was worried,” said Girl 1.

It would have been wonderful if, at this point, Girl 2 had said “you were worried about me; ah that’s nice” and Girl 1 had said “you had to go get loo rolls; no wonder you were gone so long”. But somehow it wasn’t necessary. Somewhere in the repetition of their messages and the intonation of their voices they had conveyed exactly that.

Controlling thoughts

But what if we don’t have the benefit of non-verbal communication? What if what we want to say is not instructional? What if we want to consider, engage, persuade, entertain or enlighten?

Having access to a richer, wider vocabulary is not about confusing or showing off; it’s about opening your mind, finding the best words for the job and being better able to understand.

In his article Top 3 Reasons to Improve Your Vocabulary, Brazilian mind specialist Luciano Passuello says having a huge stock of words at your disposal is not the ultimate goal. He believes that learning more words helps you better understand the ones you already know.

He also demonstrates how expanding your vocabulary opens your mind and encourages free thinking. He cites George Orwell’s 1984 and the official language Newspeak.

In Newspeak, words (like ‘freedom’) that convey subversive thoughts don’t exist anymore and new words (such as ‘crimethink’ and ‘unperson’) are both nouns and verbs to reduce vocabulary even further. By forcing the people to use only Newspeak, the government takes away the tools to question authority, think for themselves or exchange ideas.

As Luciano Passuello says, “When you lack words, you shut down new insights and lines of reasoning. By the same token, each new word opens a new avenue of thought, empowering you to think or take action in ways you could never have before.”

Totes bants

Expanding our vocabulary also enables us to say exactly what we mean. For example, ‘alternative’ might be a synonym for ‘substitute’ but you wouldn’t call the chap sitting on the bench in a football match an alternative, an unconventional or an ancillary. Equally, I could refer to a 17-year old male as a boy, youth, young man, teenager, yob, adolescent, juvenile, youngster, lad or child. By choosing what I call him, I convey a different picture of how I see him – or want you to see him.

The English language is one of the richest languages in the world. We continually create new words (e.g. selfie, hangry, Brexit) to express what we see, feel and do. And by using a corpus of around 2 billion words to monitor which words people are actually using, the Oxford English Dictionary adds around 500 new words every three months and removes obsolete ones.

While some happily embrace ‘totes’, ‘bants’ and ‘manspreading’, others are outraged by the ‘dumbing down’ of English. I say, all language development is good.

By settling for the obvious, the commonly used, we not only run the risk of limiting our thoughts, we also make our communications rather bland or clichéd. Finding that golden nugget, that unusual expression, that ‘aglet’, we bring our words to life and make them more memorable.

In the novel ‘Staring at the Sun’ by Julian Barnes, the main character (the protagonist) is fascinated by a poster she sees in early childhood. It includes the words “the mink is tenacious of life”. Had it said “the mink doesn’t die easily” would it have remained with Jean all of her 100 years? And would my husband (who first read the book in 1991) still remember it in 2016?

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