Don’t be guilty of polysyllabism (Huh?)

Ever read a sentence in a story and wonder why the author couldn’t just use plain English?

The author is guilty of polysyllabism, or using a long word for effect even though a shorter word is better. For example, the first sentence of this entry would have been written as: Ever read a sentence in a story and excogitate why the author couldn’t just use plain English?

Excogitate, meaning to ponder seriously, is an example of polysyllabism.

Of course, the word “polysyllabism,” meaning “a world with three or more syllables” is a play on the whole concept.

The problem with using too long of a word is that it’s not in many readers’ vocabularies. They’ll miss the meaning of the sentence or will have to reread the sentence to figure out what you meant. In fact, using polysyllabism largely is the author showing off or handwaving (“See, I’m smart! I know big words!”).

There is a time to use polysyllabism, though, and it’s usually for humor. This often is done to great effect in science fiction, when characters such as genius scientists, ultrasmart aliens (like Mr. Spock) or machines (like the android Data) use large words. For the jokes to work, though, usually the reader must know what the character is referring to – so the words, while large, aren’t necessarily obscure.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.