Plain Jane vs. Sesquipedalian Sam

Who would you want writing your marketing materials?Picture of Jane Jetson with money

Jane, who speaks simply in words that are easy to understand? Or Sam, a loquacious elocutionist who insists that utilizing an elevated vocabulary will enforce an auspicious level of austerity any audience will recognize as intellectually superior?

Wait just a minute, you might be thinking. What audience are we writing for? Ahh. You got me. I was trying to trick you, so let me answer clearly here:

  • If you’re writing for the general public, pick Jane.
  • If you’re writing for people who know English as a second language, choose Jane.
  • If you’re writing to a group of Harvard professors, opt for Jane.
  • If you’re writing to a collective of multi-degreed clinicians, select Jane.
  • If you’re writing to members of a Congressional committee, elect Jane.

Are you out of your mind? You are probably thinking this and wondering if you should stop reading now. After all, we’ve all seen and heard the words that Congress and clinicians and academics use. Heck, we’re pretty sure Sesquipedalian Sam works for all of them. And he probably works for lawyers and financial companies too.

But times are changing—and rightfully so.

In fact, the government is even leading the way. (Check out They have made some very public efforts to put up websites, print materials and create forms that people can understand.

Do you really want to lag behind the government? The most notorious snail on the sidewalk of progress?

Why keep it plain? Simple—to save money.

What?? You probably thought I was going to say to:

  • Help your readers understand
  • Build trust
  • Save time, because people scan more than they read

Yes, those are excellent reasons. But money motivates and you actually can save a ton of money by communicating more clearly.

Statistics on cost savings

  • As much as 40 percent of the total cost of managing all business transactions is spent on problems caused by poor communications.
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs saved more than $40,000 per year just by revising one letter. (One letter!)
  • Federal Express saved $400,000 by rewriting ground-operation manuals—that was just in the first year. (Source)

You’ll save money by reducing lawsuits. The need for customer service calls will drop. And building trust builds business.

Look what happened when a Baltimore Sun headline writer used the word “limn.” (“Opposing votes limn difference in race.”) Readers complained with four-letter words of their own.

One reader, Carol N. Shaw (who graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland) called using “limn” in a headline “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.” And it is.

I’m all for increasing your vocabulary, but “limn” belongs in the crossword puzzle, not the headline. And, in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t belong in your marketing materials either.

The whole point is to use simple words to make it easy for your message to be read by all audiences.  Or, you can utilize multisyllabic verbiage to assist in engaging your audience in a continuum of communication.

The choice is yours. Do you want to sound smart or do you want to be smart?


For more on plain language, check out the Center for Plain Language, CDC’s Simply Put, and the Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN).


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