Simple words make for powerful writing
The release of the film Darkest Hour is a timely reminder that some of Winston Churchill’s most memorable lines are based on simple words.
In 1940 the odds were stacked against Britain in its war with Germany, and the Prime Minister was under political pressure to do a deal with the Nazis. In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays Churchill in those dark days.
This clip from the film’s trailer shows Oldman delivering Churchill's famous speech to the House of Commons:
It’s a strong idea brought alive with powerful imagery. “We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Yet these famously powerful lines are crafted mainly from simple words. Fight. Field. Street. They’re simple because they come from a time when that’s all the English language had.
As Melvyn Bragg points out in his book The Adventure of English, Churchill’s lines contain mainly words that have been around for over a thousand years. They come from Old English, which was spoken in the Middle Ages. In fact, ‘surrender’ is the only word in those lines that isn’t from Old English. And as Bragg says, maybe that’s significant.
If you’re interested in the history of the English language, Bragg’s book is well worth a read. He explains that Old English had just 25,000 recorded words. Today modern English has hundreds of thousands.
So you don’t need a huge vocabulary to write powerfully; the right word for the job is often the simplest. It’s the word that boils the idea down into its purest form, that leaves nothing unclear.
“We shall fight in the fields,” said Churchill. He didn’t say: “We shall do battle on agricultural land.” That example may be a bit silly, but when you’re writing, it’s often easy to use a more complicated word than is really needed.
Of course, it’s also the way Churchill uses these words that makes his speech so memorable. The repetition of “we shall fight” adds emphasis and gives the speech its rhythm.
This, it seems, was a last-minute addition. The Washington Post reports that the original text read: “We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills.”
Churchill clearly knew how to inject more energy into his draft, and his stirring speech brought home to the British public the reality of their situation. If you’re looking to make a big impact too, my advice would be to ask yourself: “What’s the simplest word I could possibly use?”
They may not seem much on their own, but simple words provide the building blocks for brilliant writing.