English is a weird language. Because of its Norman French heritage, and the Germanic structure beneath that, there are usually at least two English words that mean more or less the same thing. However, there is usually a sense of one being higher, more intellectual, or at least more appropriate for certain settings. Consider these two phrases:

A hearty welcome.

A cordial reception.

They both mean more or less the same thing. But where the former brings to mind a hearth-and-home greeting, the latter brings to mind a much more formal affair. As it so happens, the words in the first are Germanic in origin, and the latter are French in origin. The same pattern is more or less repeated across the entire English language.

It’s a pig when it is on the farmer’s field. Germanic. But it is pork when it is on your plate. French.

A lot of folks write predominantly in one register or the other, even when the opposite is more appropriate. If, for instance, you went into a biker bar and started using a bunch of high register terms, you would likely be seen as pretentious, even something of an asshole. You might just get your ass kicked. And if you were to attend a high society ball full of pseudo-intellectuals using low register and slang, it won’t be long before you stop receiving their invitations.

Vox Day has pointed out something similar with regards to a Japanese author who wrote several novels in English. Since the author’s knowledge of the language was less than that of a native speaker, he wound up using more simplistic constructions. And, in the process, wrote several award-winning, well-received works.

Sometimes the simple will do. And as often, the pretentious will actually hurt your work.

Here on The Declination I frequently switch between styles. There is an intellectual style, composed predominantly of the high register and a rant-and-rave style mostly using the low register and even outright offensive slang. It is telling that, throughout my life, it has been the rant-and-rave that has received the most positive attention. Apparently I am better at using the low register than the high.

But here’s the interesting sidebar: the high register is not necessarily a mark of intelligence. This is a fallacy that many people succumb to. If only, they think, I were to speak using big words, people would take me seriously. Others use the high register to intentionally confuse the people they are speaking to. Lawyers, politicians, and speechwriters are famous for doing this.

The low register thus retains a certain honest quality that the high register lacks. It’s hard to bullsh*t in the low register.

I’m not saying everyone should write with a low-brow, rant-and-rave style. What I am saying, however, is that using high prose is not always a benefit, and indeed can work against you at times. When writing, ask yourself why you are using a “big” word. If it is because the word is appropriate for what you are communicating, go right ahead. A story may have many cordial receptions, so to speak. But if your reason is because you wish to sound smart, consider the possibility that instead of making you seem intelligent, it may just make you look like a pretentious fool.

And, with the exception of the Hugo Awards of late (and John Scalzi in particular), pretentious fools don’t usually win anything.

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