The Grammarphobia Blog

Preventative medicine!

Q: On your last WNYC appearance, you discussed people who add extra syllables to words in an attempt to make them (the words and the people) seem more impressive: for example, “orientate” instead of “orient” and “preventative” instead of “preventive.” Here’s a little poem that came to me after listening to you:

An ounce of preventative’s
Worth two pounds of cure.
But just one pound of curative.
Of this I am sure.

The longer a word is
The more it will mean.
So don’t get a tetanus shot
Get a tetanus vaccine.

A: My hat’s off to you! Thank you very much.

The extra syllable in a word like “preventative” or “orientate” is ugly and unnecessary. In the “Pompous Circumstances” chapter of my writing guide, Words Fail Me, I compare these words to stretch limos that are used just to make an impression.

A good writer doesn’t use words that are longer than they have to be. Shorter is usually better, and often more beautiful, as in this excerpt from When You Are Old, a poem by Yeats:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

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