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When small words become big words

19 May, 2021 Writing and layout

When small words become big words. Have you noticed how many words have been replaced by bigger versions of those words, which are unnecessary and even pretentious? I had some fun remembering examples of recent alternative uses, as well as spin-offs, as in the examples below.

What are your thoughts about the following examples? Do you have any further suggestions? Send me an email at

Small words, big words and spin-offs

Alternative vs. alternate. “Alternative” means two or more options, while “alternate” refers to only two options. Quote: “…a lack of investment in the alternate energy sector.” Comment by Kevin McCauley in O’Dwyer’s PR newsletter on 26.May 2021. Who knew there were just two forms of energy?

Instant vs. instantaneous. Instant and instantaneous can be interpreted as meaning virtually the same. In that case, why use the bigger word, which has 5 syllables instead of the smaller word, which has 2 syllables? Also, my understanding of “instant” is that it refers to something “at once” or “immediate.” In my view, “instantaneous” can also mean two or more things happening at the same time, as in “simultaneous.”

Leader or leaders have started to become leadership. As in the noun “Our leadership will make this decision,” or “That’s a decision our leadership will make.” As Kyla Sims in the Bananatag email newsletter said on 4 June 2021: “Stop email overload: How to convince leadership less is more,” and also in the same item, “But how do you convince leadership?” Also, “If what you are getting from leadership isn’t good enough for you, you can leave,” along with “If the vision leadership has articulated isn’t compelling enough, leave” – by Jessica Donahue, Medium, 13 Feb 2021. Another: “Create dialogue between employees and their leadership” – ebook Use the right channels to communicate with impact, by The Grossman Group.

Numerous, as in “numerous occasions.” Simply replace with “many” or “many times” or the exact number.

Purpose vs. purposeful. For instance, “Donald Trump and his administration consciously, purposefully, made life more difficult for Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.” Although very similar, in context “purposefully” is usually used to indicate a greater level of intent or deliberate aim, as opposed to “purposely.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary says purposefully seems to mean a determination or intentionality that purposely does not—to do something purposefully is to do it guided by a deliberate aim.

Reduce can be reduced to “cut.”

Right vs. rightful. As an adjectives, rightful is by right, by law, while right describes something on the righthand side or right can be used to mean exactly, precisely.

Several vs. multiple. While “several” is limited to a handful, “multiple” is open ended, but seems to be used to refer to anything more than two.  Example: ‘Ask “Why?” Multiple Times’ says Gini Dietrich in her Spin Sucks newsletter on 30 April 2021.

Who vs. that. “An NLP Coach that finds the best way to…” “That” is about inanimate objects, while “who” should be about people, eg “a coach who finds the best way to…” And “An investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek exposes hefty payouts to silence Airbnb guests that were victims of crime including murder and rape.” 21 June 2021.

Wrong vs. wrongful. “Wrong” means incorrect or untrue while “wrongful” means unjust or wrong, or even unlawful, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But people seem to use wrongful as their ‘go-to’ expression.

Several online sources help in editing test. As a starting point, some of these can be found on a Google page. I also noticed the The A – Z of alternative words from the Plain English Campaign.

More words to get excited about

If you would welcome some alternatives to some of the most overworked words in business communication, you could read the articles below, which have self-explanatory titles:

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash 

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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