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

Your business writing, whether in a letter to a supplier or on your web page copy, should be clear and to the point. Unfortunately, many people misuse words or choose big, fancy words over simple alternatives. Here are a few tips that can help you dramatically improve your writing.

“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….”

The Gettysburg Address

Chances are 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, while 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 they have fictitious or unsubstantiated information to help us “understand the impacts of waste prevention and recycling.” The writer could have prevented this 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. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:

Instead of writing







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-renown 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 e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.

When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

Notice the difference 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 is 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.

That said, for more impact –

Instead of writing


Study Software you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….

Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….

SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.

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 desired 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, and
  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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