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Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words on Word Choice

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Chances are that your reaction to the above "quote" is something along the lines of, "No, no, no! You're wrong, wrong, wrong!" And, of course, you would be right. Because Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: "Four score and seven."

Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost-right word—and, the right word. A distinction famously defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as "the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

With that thought in mind, in today's article I'm going to offer you a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your communications. And, make your writing more effective.

Let's start by looking at the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch. In a recent story, AP reporter Tim Reynolds describes Dick Vitale's reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Vitale, writes Reynolds, "admitted he 'cried like a baby' upon learning he was induced."

Now, maybe Vitale's use of the word "baby" clouded the writer's thinking. Because induced is so not the right word choice.

Which leads us to today's big (but hardly revolutionary) idea: For more effective word choice, think harder about the words you choose.

For example, though it's obvious that Mr. Reynolds made the wrong choice, what about the people who penned these lines?

  • This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
  • More CIOs are disinterested in Linux.
  • Given the enormity of the job, it's no wonder the men who built the railroad seem like giants to some of us today.
  • WasteWise has collected the following environmental factoids to help you understand the impacts of waste prevention and recycling. (From the Web site of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency)

How many of these people made the wrong word choice? How many made the right choice? Actually, those are trick questions. Because in each instance the highlighted word is used incorrectly.

Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way—even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or on a federal government agency Web site. But that doesn't mean the word was used correctly.

As to why the above words are—in Mark Twain's manner of speaking, lightning bugs—I'll go over one of them: factoid.

According to Webster's, a factoid is "something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact, devised especially to gain publicity and accepted because of constant repetition."

Therefore, WasteWise is actually telling us that it has fictitious or unsubstantiated information to help us "understand the impacts of waste prevention and recycling." The writer could have prevented that mistake with a little more thought and a quick trip to an online dictionary. Which is what I trust you'll do if it's unclear to you why the other examples are incorrect.

Now for a couple of specific word choice tips:

1. Choose small, simple words

The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long; 220 of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:

Instead of writing "utilize," "peruse," "ascertain," write "use," "read," "find out."

Now, am I saying that you should never use big words? No, of course not. But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better.

And here's why: "The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is—and therefore the more credible it will be." (Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, by Dr. Frank Luntz)

My second word choice tip is this:

2. Use mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words

Strunk and White, in their classic book The Elements of Style, put it this way: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.... It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character."

As to the active voice, world-renowned copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his "Active/Passive Rule": "Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice."

For instance:

  • Instead of writing "Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an email confirmation will be sent automatically to you."
  • Write "When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an email confirmation."

Notice the difference that the active voice makes? Notice also how the active voice makes the copy more "you-centric." Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.

For example, I seldom use the word "allows" because it's a passive, "permission-granting" type of word. Instead, I'll opt for "enables" or the phrase "makes it possible." "Enables" and "makes it possible" are the language of empowerment.

In short, these words are preferable to "allows" because they have more muscle and energy and will have more impact on the reader.

So, for more impact:

  • Instead of writing "Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps..." write "Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps..."
  • Instead of writing "SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld," write SmartList To Go makes it possible for you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.

* * *

Words are the most powerful communications and business tools any of us have. And the good news is that no matter who you are—Bill Gates or Bill Bailey—you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else.

Words, properly used, can help you grow your business beyond your wildest dreams. Conversely, used without proper thought and skill, words are about as helpful to you as, well, lightning bugs.

So to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page and gaining the response you seek, remember today's big idea and two tips:

For more effective word choice, think harder about the words you choose.

  1. Choose small, simple words.
  2. Choose mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words.

Follow these recommendations, and while your words might not make history... they will be duly noted, better remembered—and, most importantly, more effective.

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Ernest Nicastro is an award-winning B-to-B freelance copywriter. For more information, and to review samples of his work, visit Positive Response.

LinkedIn: Ernest Nicastro

Twitter: @enicastro

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  • by Rich Brooks - Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    Good article, but one quibble.

    Although Websters may define the factoid as false, Wikipedia reports that these days factoid is often used to describe a small, insignificant but true piece of information.

    And, if it appears in Wikipedia, it must be a factoid. Which is now true. According to Wikipedia.

    Language evolves, and these days it evolves quicker than ever.

  • by Ron Wenaas - writer Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    Hi there Rich. Here's a fact. Most schools, elementary to grad, do not allow the use of Wikipedia for research...because of its well-documented shortcomings and inaccuracies.

  • by Gary Jesch Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    You wrote: "Words, properly used, can help you grow your business beyond your wildest dreams."

    I was surprised to read a statement like this in your article. You must have had a good laugh putting it in. I know I had a good laugh when I read it.

    The sentence is a nice template for all sorts of BS, and it amazes me how much of this is showing up in sales copy, passing along essentially meaningless opinion as fact (factoid).

    For example:

    "Water, properly applied, can help you grow your garden beyond your wildest dreams."

    A garden without water would be in the same shape as a business without words. Do you have any idea how wild my dreams are?

    To write: "can help you," is to say, in modern times, "Good luck Charlie, if you believe this. I'm not making any promises. It's up to you to decide if this is just smoke blowing up your pants leg."

    IMHO, this type of writing is a red flag that the BS level is rapidly on the rise, so buyer beware!

    What do you think?

  • by Todd Cotts Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    The article is a refreshing contribution to the need for better business communication. Everyone needs to be concerned with word choice, especially those relying upon their own limited resources to market their products and services. It is also better to be candid and factual when communicating, regardless of the forum. At the same time, it is also a good idea to communicate respectfully, which does not seem to be the case with some who have been quickest to add their comments. Some of the comments posted here reflect the horrible condition today of people's inability to carry on intelligent dialogue. Instead of thoughtful conversations, many people today are given to speaking before thinking, to verbal attacks on those who have the ability and talent to post an article like this one rather than post an article of their own expressing their thoughts and opinions (hopefully thoughts and opinions that are fact-based and supported by valid resources other than Wikipedia). Words to the wise: If you own or represent a business, it would be best to consider carefully the comments you post, for those words could very well reflect poor business ethics and manners, characteristics that would lead most people to not do business with you.

  • by JR Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    I liked the article. It had some vaild points. However, I think it could be stronger without the Vitale reference because it appears that "induced" is just a small typo away from "inducted." It's probably poor proofing rather than word choice.

  • by Kyle Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    Thank you Gary. You saved me from having to say it myself.

  • by Joyce Dierschke Wed Sep 17, 2008 via web

    Thanks for a good article. The core concept is very true: simple, easy to understand, action-oriented words are the key to good copy.

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