Clear Technical Writing
Clear Terms

Weighty Nouns

Weighty nouns are words people use to impress others.

At the inception of the advertising campaign, few people recognized our brand. By the completion of the campaign, many people were talking about us.

Lean nouns are words people use to inform others.

start ← inception, commencement, origination, ...

end ← completion, resolution, termination, ...

At the start of the advertising campaign, few people recognized our brand. By the end of the campaign, many people were talking about us.

In most of your writing at work, you should be writing to inform; you should get to the point so you and your reader can get back to work and get stuff done.

Here is a brief list of lean nouns that we commonly do not use when perhaps we should:

change ← modification, deviation, conversion, ...

difference ← discrepancy, divergence, variation, ...

employees ← personnel, associates, workforce, ...

people ← individuals, parties, populace, ...

plan ← approach, concept, philosophy, ...

study ← examination, investigation, consideration, ...

type ← category, classification, variety, ...

Weighty nouns are not bad words; they just come with a lot of baggage. But that baggage can be useful. There are four rules for using, and not using, weighty nouns.

Rule 1: Use a weighty noun when its meanings and connotations clearly add to useful context.

We found differences between contracted and conducted maintenance work on the radio towers.

That sentence is understandable. But does it convey all it could or should? Consider the possibility that the following were true:

  • The differences are unexpected.
  • The differences indicate something is wrong.
  • The differences might indicate someone did something wrong.
  • The differences should be explained.

In this case, a weighty word is the right word to use.

We found discrepancies between contracted and conducted maintenance work on the radio towers.

Rule 2: Use a lean noun when clarity is needed.

Four categories of log files were more than we had expected. Further examination of the data is necessary. I will get the right individuals involved.

Four types of log files were more than we had expected. Further study of the data is necessary. I will get the right people involved.

Rule 3: Substitute a weighty noun to avoid repetition.

Your plan for this project is not detailed enough. A carefully structured plan is needed. A cursory plan is almost as bad as no plan at all.

Obviously, a rewrite would improve this. But if you are in a hurry, and you want to avoid mind-numbing repetition, you could break things up with a weighty synonym.

Your plan for this project is not detailed enough. A carefully structured approach is needed. A cursory plan is almost as bad as no plan at all.

Rule 4: Repeat a lean noun when clarity is needed.

Please alert employees to the changes in our health benefits. We are adopting health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts for medical costs. Personnel must be made aware of these modifications before the open enrollment period.

Clarity is imperative when disruption is afoot. And repetition can provide emphasis.

Please alert employees to the changes in our health benefits. We are adopting health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts for medical costs. Employees must be made aware of these changes before the open enrollment period.

Lesson: Weighty Nouns
Module: Clear Terms
Course: Clear Technical Writing