Can Bigger Adverbs Strengthen Copy? New Study Suggests They Might

"Never use a long word where a short one will do," George Orwell advises writers in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." Now, a new study conducted by researchers at Stanford University calls into question Orwell's advice that less is always more. 

In the study, published in the journal Cognition and featured in the October 2018 issue of Psychology Today magazine, scientists asked participants to rate objects according to certain factors like beauty and expense. Participants rated items higher when longer, rarer adverbs were used to describe them.

Even when researchers invented adverbs - like gaburatumly (sounds like a drug name to me!) participants still rated items higher when the adverbs describing them contained more syllables. The researchers concluded that the descriptions' effect was stronger when it contained multi-syllabic, uncommon adverbs.

While the results of this single study certainly don't discount Orwell's advice to keep things simple, it reminds me of one of the most important rules of writing: no writing rule is so absolute that it should be applied universally or never be broken. Writers, for instance, are often advised to avoid adverbs or passive voice, but still adverbs and passive voice have their place. Even Stephen King, who warns against excessive adverbs in his famous memoir "On Writing," throws in an adverb now and then.

Avoid jargon that confuses readers. Avoid flowery language when simple language will communicate a clearer message. But don't discount a fitting descriptor just because it contains four or five syllables. That fitting but uncommon adverb just might give your copy the extra punch it needs to persuade.