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November 01, 2011


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Steven Lubet

Good for you, John. It is great to see somebody sticking up for the virtues of a broad vocabulary. One might add William F. Buckley and George F. Will (and the late William Safire) to the ranks of popular writers who do not restrict themselves to common words.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I second Professor Lubet's sentiments.

John Kang

Two cheers for Roget's! Hurrah! Hurrah! Steven--well said--Buckley (William and Christopher) are terrific; how I wish I were born with their talents.....

Paul Gowder

I don't think it's coincidental, the British thing. The British do tend to use the language better than Americans, from both directions. That is, not only in using the big words better, but also (and this is critical) knowing when small words will do. Ordinary British English tends to be much more free of the horrible corporate-speak that infects American English ("utilize," and that kind of garbage). To see this, compare the prose on the BBC website with similar from, say, CNN. Or read a Congressional speech and compare it with a speech in Parliament. (Or just watch Question Time.)

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Paul, your "utilize" example brought to mind a word currently in vogue (among not a few law profs) that I utterly detest: "incentivize" (and the related 'incents').

Brando Simeo Starkey

I strongly disagree. A "big" word adds no value over a "small" one. And if the "small" word makes your prose easier to comprehend, choosing the "big" word would be a mistake. Peppering your prose with bigger words does not signal good writing. Consistently opting for the word that makes your sentences as accurate, clear and brief as possible, however, does.

Jason Kilborn

I've wanted to ask/complain about a particular word for a while now, and this post seems to be the perfect vehicle: explicate?! Why in the world do people say "explicate" rather than explain (or something similar). I can stomach "utilize," but explicate? Any defenders out there?

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Explicate is used by those with an unconscious or sub-conscious wish to pontificate, not merely explain. Hence what was originally a Freudian slip is now commonplace.


I'm not quite sure if Patrick is joking in his comment or not, but I'd like that to be true. That said, I don't mind "explicate", at least in the context that I see it the most- in philosophical texts. You can see some examples here:

In this case "explicate" means more than merely "explain"- it's a special sort of explanation, often involving showing structural relationships and the like. Used in this community, it has a semi-technical sense and works quite well. Perhaps it's more of a problem in other cases. But, my experience is that technical terms, when used in the appropriate community, are often more clear than "smaller" words, even if they are merely showing off or worse when used in the wrong setting.

Peter Yu

There are times when you want readers to go through materials quickly. There are also times when you want readers to slow down--by using passive voice and multisyllabic words, perhaps. Sorry, I mean big words; multisyllabic is too long a word.

Sadly, law review editors tend to follow rigid rules that privilege rule compliance over providing a better reading experience. Even worse, some journals tend to chop articles up into different sections with editors and staffers focusing intensely on individual sentences or paragraphs. What we sometimes ended up with was a perfectly formatted document full of forgettable information, not a memorable piece of writing.

Paul Gowder

"Incentivize" needs to die.

John Kang

I'm almost half tempted to begin a post asking readers, "Which words do you hate most--e.g., 'incentivize,' 'opine,' 'that which,' 'explicate,'--in the law reviews?" A modest bid at reform, I know, but still, a bid at reform.

Jacqui Lipton

John: I think you should definitely begin such a post and allow commenters to add to the list. I am annoyed by utilize, opine and incentivize and I'm sure there are others out there I could think of...

Bill Reynolds

Churchill said (or so I was taught): "Old words are good and short words are best." What else do you need to know?

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