The Problem with Pompous Language in Technical Writing


Why oh why do some writers seem to intentionally want to muddle meaning and make reading and understanding that much more difficult for readers? It's astounding to me that some writers intentionally use words that obfuscate (how's that for a word??) meaning. Essentially, they use "pompous" language, or to put it simply, big words that aren't necessary. Using pompous language is a pet peeve of mine, and it seems to be an increasingly common problem in technical writing. Take the word "utilize," for instance; while a few years back it may have been novel and useful, it has become a cliché --I hear it in advertisements, read it in the technical and scientific documents I edit, and see it written in everything from newspapers to magazine articles. Why is "utilize" perceived to be so much better than "use"?

When I harp on this in my workshops, participants generally say, "I use 'utilize' so I don't overuse 'use.'" But the reality is that, in many (if not most cases), the sentence can be refashioned so that neither "use" nor "utilize" are necessary. While pompous words aren't the only thing that obscure meaning, they certainly add to it. When you can use a one-syllable word rather than one that's two or more, you should, because doing so better ensures that your reader will understand your writing. In addition, be sure that you use only those words that add value; if you can remove words and the sentence retains its meaning, chances are those words that you removed add no value.

Whether you're writing technical, scientific, or business documents, readers value being able to get through a document quickly and easily, and avoiding pompous language, words that add no value, and words that muddle meaning are a good way to ensure this.