Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words — like sun and grass and home — are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace and charm that large words do not have.

Big words can make the way dark for those who read what you write and hear what you say. Small words cast their clear light on big things — night and day, love and hate, war and peace and life and death. Big words at times seem strange to the eye and the ear and the mind and the heart. Small words are the ones we seem to have known from the time we were born, like the hearth fire that warms the home.

Short words are bright like sparks that glow in the night, prompt like the dawn that greets the day, sharp like the blade of a knife, hot like salt tears that scald the cheek, quick like moths that flit from flame to flame and terse like the dart and sting of a bee.

Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.

The headline of this column and the four paragraphs that you have just read are wrought entirely of words of one syllable. In setting myself this task, I did not feel especially cabined, cribbed or confined. In fact, the structure helped me to focus on the power of the message I was trying to put across. That’s because, according to the Oxford corpus, the 60 most frequently used words in English are each made of a single syllable, as are 94 of the first 100.

For centuries our finest poets and orators have recognized and employed the power of small words to make a straight point between two minds. A great many of our proverbs punch home their points with pithy monosyllables: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” “A stitch in time saves nine,” “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The King James Bible is a centerpiece of short words: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.”

When asked to explain his policy to Parliament, Winston Churchill responded with these ringing monosyllables: “I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”

In his “Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost observes, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in,” and William H. Johnson uses 10 two-letter words to explain his secret of success: “If it is to be,/It is up to me.”

To conclude his Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare intimates his own immortality in 20 monosyllables:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

You too can tap into the vitality and vigor of compact expression. Take a suggestion from the highway department. At the boundaries of your speech and prose place a sign that reads, “Take Care: Small Words at Work.”