I have a theory that good prose style comes in part from avoiding complicated, abstract, and pretentious words. Are there any good lists of words to avoid, preferably with suggested alternatives? I'm thinking of lists like this one. Thank you.

2 Answers 2


I suggest that you focus instead on critiquing your own writing with the question, "Could I say this more simply? More precisely? Can I potentially cut out any words?" You could also ask someone else, whose clear and simple style you admire, to look through your writing with these questions in mind.

Sometimes the "big" words are actually better, if they convey your meaning more exactly. It's only when they obscure your actual meaning or jar with your style that you want to eliminate them.

That said, Strunk and White does list commonly misused/overused words (although their selection of "commonly overused" words is written in reference to their own time).

  • Thank you for the suggestion to Strunk and White. You also make a very fair point, and I don't mean to suggest that prose style is mechanically replacing some words with other. What I'm trying to do is create a presumption in favor of simple words. That way, any time I choose to use a more complicated word it will be a conscious choice. This should limit the use of such words to when absolutely necessary --- e.g., when the bigger word is more precise. I should have been clearer in my original question.
    – Alan
    Apr 16, 2013 at 18:20

The language is a tool to convey more than meaning. By choosing specific words you create atmosphere, impression, differ between formal and informal, elegant versus pretentious, frank versus rude. By removing a set of words you cripple your means of expression.

And there are words that function in specific expressions and fit specific situations where simpler alternatives would be worse. There are rules that directly contradict your premise, like never use two words when one will suffice - use a more sophisticated word where you'd need to use two simpler.

Let us look at your list and see how it butchers the language:


accomplish - carry out, do

Son, you spent past fifteen years in the university. What did you do?

accurate - correct, exact, right

This gun is correct.

This gun is exact.

This gun is right.

allocate - divide

The malloc() command divides a specified amount of memory. (that's entirely incorrect!!)

attain - meet

I have met the rank of captain.

Don't seek lists of words to avoid. Just learn the proper use of all words and apply the right ones where they belong.

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