Complex and Abstract Words
by Nick Wright
Prefer a simpler word whenever you can.
Simple words help you express your message clearly. Too many complex words are like hurdles in a race, barriers to understanding which slows readers down. Replacing complex words with simpler words whenever possible lets your readers concentrate on your ideas and information.
Complex: We will endeavor to assist you.
Simple: We will try to help you.
Using simple and familiar words wherever possible doesn’t insult your readers’ intelligence but emphasizes clarity rather than formality. After all, sometimes the message of the document itself is complex and you want to make sure readers act as you hope or intend.
You may need to use a more complex word to give a more precise meaning. You may also find some words, such as prohibit or require, are difficult to avoid because of your writing task and subject matter. For example, you may find it easier to keep to simpler words in a memo or letter than in a report or regulation. However, use shorter, simpler words as the basis of your writing and save longer or complex words for when they are essential.
For more guidance, see our long list of words to avoid and their simple alternatives.
Although many complex words are not difficult in themselves, they have a cumulative effect on the writing style and affect your tone. Usually, familiar plain language alternatives work much better. So, keep to simpler, familiar words whenever you can. Your message will be clearer and your tone will improve and be less formal.
The Federal Government draws on the skills of many professions, and they each contribute their own words to the government’s writing. Many of these words are abstract, conveying little to the general public—and even to other specialists in the government. Here are some examples.
- bespoke development software
- co-ordination of departmental output
- customer relationship management
- enterprise resource planning
- live operation management
- mentoring relationship
- network-centric enterprises
- object relational technology
- ongoing contractual relationships
- overall control environment
- proactive system-based solutions
These clusters throw together two, three or four nouns and an occasional adjective to form an abstract phrase. This is the worst jargon. Sometimes, a phrase such as collateral damage is a euphemism to gloss over reality or hide the truth or information. Watch out for such strings of adjectives and nouns. Using too many abstract terms makes your writing vague and your message unclear.
The more information you give your readers, the better. Go through your writing looking for abstract words or phrases. Turn them into specific, concrete information your readers can picture and understand. This helps focus your mind on presenting relevant information to readers.
Words such as aspect, concept, elements, facilities, inputs, operation, resources, situation and variables are common in abstract writing.
Agencies that have created a system performance-based, customer-driven, results-oriented culture (i.e., changed the internal dialog/conversation to center around these dimensions), aligned their organizational processes to support this new culture, and have used IT as an enabler to do so.
Agencies are aligned around the concept of their vision and values that their “groups of influence” – customers, taxpayers, employees, opinion makers, and policy makers – accept and that these groups perceive a noticeable change in dialog/operations/services.
Redrafted into clearer English
Agencies with a performance-based, customer-driven, results-oriented culture have changed the organization by using IT to help them manage staff and their work. They have taken their vision and values and explained their ideas to the most important people: customers, taxpayers, employees, opinion makers and policy makers. When these people notice a change in the Agency, the new culture has started to succeed.
Look at the following example and see how little information readers get from the words “facilities” and “system”:
Our facilities will improve our system performance.
Readers have no idea what will improve the performance, or indeed what will perform better. You can be more specific by replacing the word facilities with something specific that readers can picture.
Running our new facility will improve our system performance.
Running database software will improve our system administration.
Running Microsoft’s database will improve our payroll administration.
Running Microsoft’s database saves three hours printing the payroll report.
When you write, you want your readers to know exactly what you mean. Specific words conjure up a picture in your readers’ minds and so convey a clearer message than abstract words. Abstract words sometimes creep into writing without adding anything to the meaning. Often, you can just delete the word or reword the sentence to avoid them. When writing becomes too abstract, readers have little idea of what the writer means. Here’s an example from a report:
A broad spectrum of recovery strategies is available to aid the recovery of key systems and business activities. This can range from:
- outsourcing recovery to a third party supplier; to
- doing without certain systems activities or systems for a short time; to
- using internal resources, such as space and systems located in other, remote offices.
Vague phrases such as a number of, in due course, and at a later date also contribute to abstract writing. Instead of this vagueness about time, be as specific as you can by giving a date, a specified time or at least use a single word such as soon or later.
As the writer, you control how specific you make your information. The more you move away from the abstract words and go towards the specific end of the list, the more information you give and the clearer your meaning becomes.
Make sure you choose the right amount of information to meet your aim in writing and your readers’ needs. Readers often complain there is not enough information or the information is irrelevant. The key is to pitch the content at the right level – that is, keeping the information specific without straying into irrelevant detail.