I have noticed that on ELL many people give answers using rare/difficult words and constructions. Some write in 'an English' not all learners can yet understand. I know I can, although at times I have to search for a particular word in the dictionaries. Not all learners can understand what others have written. Why not use Simple English to give answers?

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    Good point! I try to write mine as plain as possible in my answers, and probably in most comments, but if it turns out the be easy to read, it's by design, not an accident. I suppose it's the same for all of our answer writers. Simple English is not the easiest thing to write, because it's not what we normally use, but we can try. As Jacques Barzun said, "Simple English is no one's mother tongue. It has to be worked for." Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 9:04
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    @DamkerngT. It is better to try to write as simple as possible. Why not use simple words and simple constructions? I often read answers and notice that most of the text can be made simple. There are synonyms that most people know. Why write a complex sentence when it is better to split it into several parts? Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 10:08
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    Related question.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 11:05
  • Also related: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/2428
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 12:32
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    I think that simple sentence structure is far more important in answers than trying to only use common words. I'm biased though because I love to learn new words :)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 12:36
  • I've seen a few answers where archaic words were used or the least popular words. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 13:18
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    I tend to think that idioms and expressions pose more of a problem than difficult words or complex constructions. There are any number of online dictionaries that will define a "big word." Complex sentences can be parsed with a pen and paper. But Monday morning quarterbacking or writing chicken scratch or throwing your hat in the ring or going pear-shaped might throw someone for a loop.
    – choster
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 5:21
  • @SovereignSun Not everyone here is an English teacher. Those of us who have taught English seem to be clearer and simpler. I agree that academic language does not help in most cases. There was a recent question re Set versus Collection from you. I received three downvotes, yet, when I read my answer compared to others, I found mine to be the clearest. You appear not to have even acknowledged it. I often find that answers here very confusing and over-the-top, using complicated technical grammar language that does not help a learner.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 16:31
  • I also think that examples are helpful. An explanation plus one or more examples and very little technical grammarian jargon.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


There are two sides to this argument.

On one hand, people who answer on ELL should be aware that the person asking a question may have limited English skills. We should conscientiously try to not overwhelm the person with fancy words and complex sentences.

On the other hand, if we simplify things too much, how will you expand your vocabulary? I won’t apologize on behalf of the community if you have had to look up words in a dictionary – that’s part of learning the language!

There is a risk in eliminating fancier words or replacing them with easier synonyms. If everyone did that in every answer, the site might start to read as though everything was written in “baby talk.” Fancier words are often more precise and convey more meaning; simpler words can be misconstrued as rude or belittling. For example, I’m more comfortable with saying that you “might have limited English skills” than saying that you’re “not good at English” – the version that is easier to understand is also less polite! Also, did I really need to say “conscientiously”?

We should conscientiously try to not overwhelm the person with fancy words and complex sentences.

I could leave that word out for the sake of simplicity, but the sentence would lose a little of its meaning. Conscientious means:

wishing to do what is right, especially to do one's work well and thoroughly (NOAD)

So that word adds a little bit of meaning to the sentence. I think it’s better to leave it in.

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    I agree. I've been learning English since the age of 5 and, well, it's just my hobby really. I can't be offended by not knowing some words or not understanding something, basically, because I'm not a native speaker and I don't learn English every day or as intensively as some other people do. Yet, as a non-native, I remember how hard it always was to understand somebody who writes in good and beautiful English! I had a lot of questions about everything. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 11:59
  • Now I mostly have problems with forgetting whether something is correct in one or another way. I find words I might have heard before, probably they are somewhere in my head but I can't remember their meaning! But like many who wish to have a clear answer I like it when an answer is comprehensible, legible.and well-defined. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 11:59
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    To echo Choster in the comments, as an Italian speaker, I would guess that the words: conscientiously, person, and complex are the easiest to guess. Whereas, overwhelm and fancy, although shorter and seemingly more simple, are the most difficult to know. Ironically, in short sentences, the longer the word, the easier it is for speakers of Romance languages to get the gist of its meaning.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 18:45
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    @Mari-LouA I think you make a good point. Also, it seems to me that shorter words tend to have more meanings and different uses. Conscientiously is just an adverb and has two meanings (diligently or in a principled manner). Fancy on the other hand can be used as a noun, a verb, interjection or adjective and has many different meanings for each. Choosing words because they are more common doesn't necessarily make what you're writing more comprehensible than choosing less common but more precise words.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 23:49
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    @Colleen - You’re right; it can be harder to pin down the meaning of a common word. (Just try looking up those four bolded words in a dictionary.)
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 8:59
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    Totally agree! But it's not just in matters of vocabulary that we should avoid "dumbing down". In your own text you wrote if you have had to look up words in a dictionary, but we know perfectly well that at least some learners would find that much easier to understand if you'd written if you needed to look them up. There's not much justification for deliberately using phrasing that would be unusual or difficult even for native speakers, but I don't think we should bend too far in the opposite direction either. We should just write "naturally". Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 16:40
  • I agree with the vocab point. If things are made too easy, they will take much more time to understand on how and when and where to use a particular fancy word. But here I also agree to FumbleFingers' point: We should just write "naturally." And if we think we used a fancy word or phrase that the OP might not understand, we always have the option to provide the meaning or link linking to a reputable dictionary.
    – Usernew
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 6:42

I agree with J.R.'s answer, but I also want to add some things.

I just recently started answering questions here, after having one of my answers get migrated from ELU. I'm a native speaker, so I was initially a little concerned that my writing may be too complex for some learners to understand.

The thing is, it's not easy for me to determine which words are "too difficult" or when my sentence structure is "too complex". I also don't like to change what I've written after I found the way I want it to read.

After finding some of the linked posts here on meta, I decided to just write things normally, without trying to "dumb it down". If you don't understand what I'm saying, just ask! Most people will be happy to explain what they mean (just don't overdo it, see what you can figure out on your own first).

I'd also like to point out that Macs have a great feature: three finger tap on a word to see its definition. (This post explains how to enable/disable the three finger tap dictionary and this post explains how to change the dictionary languages.)

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    Often, if people do not understand the English, it is not due to single words.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:12

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