Complex Ideas

I spent an evening writing for this site one night and hit the Publish button. I have the editor set up to check for spelling and whatnot (even though spell check has failed me before). I resolved the glaring errors until I came upon one that completely surprised me. I used the word “purchase” and the Proofreader flagged it for being a “complex idea.” Wait, what?

I clicked to display more info and read

Complex Idea

Try a simpler word for purchase

Where possible you should use a simple word over a complex word. Simple words are easier to read and let your readers focus on your ideas.

Replace purchase with

  • buy

Really? The word “purchase” is so complex that the average person will fail to understand it? I was flabbergasted. I know I’m prone to use , um, longer words, but this seemed excessive. I took a quick, completely unscientific poll and discovered 100% of my sample group understood that “purchase” meant “buy” and could use the two interchangeably. If you don’t know what “purchase” means, please use context clues to discover its meaning. If you don’t know what “context” means, please learn to use a dictionary, a search engine, or at least refrain from procreating.

Honestly, I am less annoyed by the suggestion that I should use a different word than I am by wondering how many people might change “purchase” to “buy” based on a computerized Proofreader. Then I get scared about the type of world that creates.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I shouldn’t be surprised and that Douglas Adams predicted this type of society long before. In So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (one of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books), he wrote a character who places the entire world in an insane asylum. The character did this because he read the instructions on a box of toothpicks. He (reasonably) reckoned that any civilization that required instructions for the use of a toothpick had clearly lost its marbles and should be put away for its own good. I laughed when I read that in middle school.

I didn’t laugh in high school when I bought a magazine because it contained not one, but two articles on toothpicks. One explained how to choose the right toothpick for your mouth (and all this time I though it was just a bit of wood with pointy ends). The other explained the proper use of a toothpick. We evolved from needing direction on the box to an entire article in a major magazine.

We clearly fell further if we can;t expect to use a word such as “purchase.” It’s not a particularly long or difficult word, so why shouldn’t we use it? I guess some might argue that we should make sure writings are accessible to everyone. That we should simplify as much as possible for greater understanding.

I agree that understanding is an admirable goal, but we can’t dumb down our messages simply to satisfy some nebulous need to not be complex. The world is complex. People are complex, and we do a great disservice if we not only believe that they can learn a complex idea such as “purchase,” but expect them to.

Perhaps the most complex idea is that we are capable of more, of better and that we need and should be pushed to grow and learn. So I choose to ignore the Proofreader occasionally because I think we’re better than it believes us to be. Maybe we should spend more time proving it.

© Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Leighton Brown is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information, please see the Copyright page.
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About leighton

I could be considered a true Renaissance Man after having a long and storied (seriously, people actually tell stories about it) college experience and varied careers. I am also a shameless self-promoter (who did you think was writing this anyway?) who is prone to flights of fancy, an abundance of passion on any given subject, ,obsessive behavior, spontaneous storytelling (whether anyone listens or not), and making parenthetical references. I would also be thrilled if I heard someone use the word "raconteur" to describe me.
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5 Responses to Complex Ideas

  1. Terry says:

    Excellent use of the word flabbergasted. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen/heard it. And bonus points for the Hitchiker’s Guide reference. Though, I’m not sure society has long until it gets there. I quite often want to go visit Outside the Asylum.

  2. Shayna says:

    “If you don’t know what “context” means, please learn to use a dictionary, a search engine, or at least refrain from procreating.”

    Forget about world peace; this is my wish for humanity! Wonderfully and brilliantly witty.

    • leighton says:

      Oh crap, does that mean I’ve helped doom the world to warring, but extremely literate armies? 🙂

      In all seriousness, thank you for the kind words.

  3. Adele says:

    I found your post today when I did some googling of my own after having the word “concept” flagged as being too complex; the proofreader suggested I should replace it with “idea”. I absolutely enjoyed your post and found it to be very true! Well done 🙂

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