Morten Just has created a text editor called Cleartext (for Macs only) that autocorrects your writing so that your text contains only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. Just says that the goal is to make writing easier to be understood.
As someone who writes a lot and tries to write as clearly as possible so as to make myself understood by the reader, I was interested in this software but the question is when one should use it. It clearly has benefits for things like instruction manuals, safety rules, and the like, where it is really important that there be little or no ambiguity and where one may be dealing with people who are not native English speakers.
But I was more interested in the idea of how far one should go in using the most common words. Just quotes Orwell’s influential and well-known essay Politics and the English Language where he recommends “Never use a long word when a short one will do” and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” But Orwell’s main targets are those who use language to either deliberately obfuscate their meaning or use it lazily and thoughtlessly, stringing together prefabricated phrases and clichés and stale metaphors, rather than deliberately picking out words in order to make one’s meaning clear.
As a teacher, I sometimes encountered students who, when called upon to write papers, resort to a convoluted style with long sentences and big words under the impression that those will impress the reader by conveying profundity. I try to persuade them to not do that and that ideas benefit from being expressed with clarity and precision. But that is different from asking them to always use short and simple words. In attempting to achieve a high level of clarity, one may have to use words that are less common, and to avoid staleness and repetition one may need to use synonyms for common words.
For example, in a post earlier today I wrote ‘ganged agley’. It comes from the Scottish dialect and means ‘went awry’. It is an allusion to the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns where the full phrase is “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. I admit that it is a bit out there but to me it sounded just right and so I put it in, hoping that readers will either know it already or figure out the meaning from the context or look up the allusion, as reader raym did.
I learned to appreciate English largely by reading good writers and they often used words that I had not encountered before. It is due to such exposure that my own vocabulary increased. raym seems to feel that his knowledge was enriched, just like I do when I encounter a new word or phrase. When I write, I do not deliberately use long and esoteric words thinking that they will impress readers. But at the same time I will not reject a word or phrase if I feel it is the right one and that it captures my meaning precisely, conveys a certain image, or otherwise serves some purpose. To water things down seems to me to be to insult the reader.