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Friday, June 20, 2014
Words & Language Toolbox

Take it from Shakespeare: Master the small word

By Paula LaRocque

I’ve often used this space to extol the virtue of the small word — the bright, clear word we all know and understand.

So why do I bring it up again? I bring it up again because today, the day of this writing in April, would have been William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. And while our finest communicators have known for centuries the power of the small word, no one has known it better than the Bard.

Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary for his time — much larger than the lexicon of today’s average journalist. He also was familiar with the Latinisms popular in Elizabethan England. So he was more than able to adorn his work (when he chose) with showy expression.

For his most riveting moments, however, Shakespeare chose the plainest, simplest phrasing. And the plainest and simplest was usually also the shortest — the small word:

• My heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand.

• Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods.

• All the world’s a stage.

• To be or not to be.

• He wears the rose of youth upon him.

• We are such stuff as dreams are made on.

Four hundred-plus years is a long time to be the English language’s leading wordsmith. By “wordsmith,” I’m suggesting not only the beauty and profundity of Shakespeare’s prose, but also its freshness and originality. Shakespeare frequently drew his dramas from old and oft-told tales, but he made them new again through his creative vision and inventive phrasing.

The same is true of his language. Whatever his meaning, Shakespeare had the right word for it. And if he didn’t, he created it. His countless linguistic inventions thrive in everyday speech all these years later and are so much a part of the language that they often are springboards to fresh coinages.

For example, his “to the manner born” — meaning accustomed to the elegance of the mannered — generated the witty title of British TV’s “To the Manor Born.” And the stock market borrowed Shakespeare’s “witching hour,” making it “triple-witching hour” — the unpredictable trading preceding the simultaneous expiration of three kinds of stock options.

Any number of Shakespeare’s original creations enrich today’s idiom:

• Salad days.

• Over hill, over dale.

• Middle of the night.

• Quiet as a lamb.

• Motley fool.

• Eating me out of house and home.

• Laid on with a trowel.

• Forget and forgive.

• Sweets to the sweet.

• Elbow room.

• Naked truth.

• Charmed life.

• Sink or swim.

• Brave new world.

• Men of few words.

• Not a mouse stirring.

• Forever and a day.

Notice that most of those familiar expressions are single-syllable — so simple that they’ve stuck in the memory for centuries.

OK, I hear you saying. It worked for the Bard. But I’m a reporter. Will it work for me?

Oh, and how! Even the most turgid journalistic passage is transformed by the right kind of simplicity — the kind that comes with small words. Witness this lead as originally written by a professional writer and rewritten by a newsroom intern:


Thirty-one Magic Valley residents accused in a civil suit of an alleged loan fraud against the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development might settle the case before it goes to trial, according to federal court documents.

Edited, using small words:

Thirty-one Magic Valley residents might cut a deal on the charge that they lied to get U.S.-backed home loans.

So, yes, I recommend small words — with one small reservation. What I termed above “the right kind of simplicity” looks easier on the page than it is in execution. As Jacques Barzun observed: “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue. It has to be worked for.”

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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