Vocabulary: General Principles

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The King's English   (Cartoon by Jack Kent, King Aroo)

From The King's English, by Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler:


Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows :
1. Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
2. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
3. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
4. Prefer the short word to the long.
5. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
These rules are given roughly in order of merit; the last is also the least. It is true that it is often given alone, as a sort of compendium of all the others. In some sense it is that: the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely. But if, instead of his Saxon percentage's being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written.
The Romance languages are those whose grammatical structure, as well as part at least of their vocabulary, is directly descended from Latin— as Italian, French, Spanish. Under Romance words we include all that English has borrowed from Latin either directly or through the Romance languages. And words borrowed from Greek in general use, ranging from alms to metempsychosis, may for our purposes be considered as Romance. The vast number of purely scientific Greek words, as oxygen, meningitis, are on a different footing, since they are usually the only words for what they denote.
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