Saturday, September 13, 2003

Short words work well

I just read a very interesting techincal paper. It was about extending the Java programming language, and as a way of making his point, the author of the paper decided to only use words of one syllable, and then to allow himself to define words of more than one syllable in the course of the paper.

If you have PDF reader, and you can deal with a technical discussion of programming languages, you can read the paper, but for this blog, the thing which was so interesting to me was the last part, where the author reflects on the process of writing the paper.


I would like to tell you what I have learned from the task of designing this talk. In choosing to give up the many long words that I have come to know since I was a child, words that have many fine shades of meaning, I made this task much harder than it needed to be. I hope that you have not found it too hard on your ears. But I found that sticking to this rule made me think. I had to take time to think through how to phrase each thought. And there was this choice for each new word: is it worth the work to define it, or should I just stick with the words I have? Should I do the work of defining a new word such as mirror, or should I just say “looking glass” each time I want to speak of one? (As an example, I was tempted more than once to state the “ly” rule for making new words that change what verbs mean, but in the end I chose to cast all such words to one side and make do. And I came that close to defining the word without, but each time, for better or for worse, I found some other way to phrase my thought.)

I learned in my youth, from the books of such great teachers of writing as Strunk and White, that it is better to choose short words when I can. I should not choose long, hard words just to make other persons think that I know a lot. I should try to make my thoughts clear; if they are clear and right, then other persons can judge my work as it ought to be judged.

From the work of planning this talk, in which I have tried to go with this rule much more far than in the past, I found that for the most part they were right. Short words work well, if I choose them well.

Thus I think that programming languages need to be more like the languages we speak—but it might be good, too, if we were to use the languages we speak more in the way that we now use programming languages. All in all, I think it might be a good thing if those who rule our lives—those in high places who do the work of state, those who judge what we do, and most of all those who make the laws—were made to define their terms and to say all else that they say in words of one syllable. For I have found that this mode of speech makes it hard to hedge. It takes work, and great care, and some skill, to find just the right way to say what you want to say, but in the end you seem to have no choice but to talk straight. If you do not veer wide of the truth, you are forced to hit it dead on.

I urge you, too, to give it a try.

From "Growing a Language", by Guy L. Steele Jr.

I think it would be a good thing to add "those who love God and want to do what He says" to that list. We should give it a try.

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