I know the SWR topic gets a lot of debate here, but given that the things exist, I am asking for a best practice in a particular set of cases.

Quintilian said something like "the goal of communication should not be merely to be understood, but to make it impossible to be misunderstood." More recently, Randall Munroe in his new book has taught us that sometimes the best thing to say is "techtonic plate" but other times "the big slowly moving flat rock that we live on" is better.

Suppose someone comes here to ask "What is a single word for 'using big words when small ones will do'?" I know that sesquipedalian is a perfectly reasonable answer. But I also know that if the OP uses this word in the context she describes, she will sound arrogant, pompous, pretentious, or worse. She is also likely to not be understood by her audience, and violate Quintilian's advice.

I offer as one example this question. There are two good answers, and each deserves the up-votes it has. But a comment by @Necreaux to one answer is an excellent summation:

While perspicacious is good, it is a word that may not be understand [sic] by many and could sound pretentious. Depending on the audience it might not be a viable option.

My own belief is that the four-word phrasing in the question is far better than any one word could ever be. Should I add this as an answer, with this explanation?

  • Is techtonic some sort of technological tonic?
    – ab2
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 18:23
  • @ab2: Good catch. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techtonic. I'm going to avoid editing out my own typo for just this reason.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 18:25
  • isn't it Tectonic? Wanted to edit but the edit button is grayed out :(
    – kumarharsh
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 5:06
  • Far too often folks insist on a single word when a phrase would be better. In many cases it's clear no single word exists, but the OP refuses to accept that. I think "single-word-request" should be done away with, in favor of "stock-phrase" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 3:28
  • I would slave stock-phrases to idioms. When I see a single word request I genuinely try to think of a single word that works. Only when finding none do I consider if there is a nice idiomatic expression that be used instead. It's impossible to prove there is no single word. It is possible to show there are alternatives. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 22:27

3 Answers 3


I've always thought a brief, more-than-one-word phrase ought to be an acceptable answer for a single word request, particularly when the suggestion is, say, a phrasal verb, a multiword expression (MWE), or an established phrase, idiom, or maxim.

Besides, what counts as a single word, anyway? Is ice cream a single word? What about hors d'oeuvres? (I'd venture that, deep down, most "single word requests" are probably really asking for a single lexical item. But I digress.)

I don't think it would be a bad thing to reference another person's answer, but, as you say, it's best to avoid a negative spin when doing do. In other words, instead of saying:

Don't use sesquipedalian – you'll sound like a pompous ass.

try a page from Necreaux's book:

While sesquipedalian is a fine answer, you might want to keep something more readily understood in your hip pocket.

As for referencing the wording used by an O.P. (e.g., What is a word for someone who is a good judge of character?), I wouldn't leave "Good judge of character" as an answer. Sure, the phrase is familiar and therefore viable and deserving of a comment; however, in the case of a single-word-request, I think an answer should offer some alternative to the O.P.'s original wording.

  • I don't understand -- sesquipedalian is a fine word, easily understood, and quite handy to have. Why just last month I was working on a small construction project and said to my co-worker "Hand me that sesquipedalian piece over there."
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 3:32

Sometimes people ask single-word-requests because they expect there's some easy-to-understand, fairly common word that they just don't know yet or have forgotten. Other times they really need a single word. It's super important, for some reason. Sadly, the SWR questions usually don't provide much context or limit the scope of possible answers. Finally, SWR questions are often only tagged as such, and the question doesn't even explicitly state that it's limited to single-word answers.

With that in mind, I'd say you should answer the question with a phrase if a phrase works best. Explain your reasons for discarding other answers if that helps make it clearer.

  • 3
    Also, I think very importantly, the answer 'there is no such word' should be promoted as a viable answer. Sometimes there just isn't that one word that fits all the criteria.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:04
  • 5
    @Mitch - The problem with "no such word" is that there might actually be such a word. I would never answer with anything stronger than, "I'm not aware of any word."
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:21
  • @Mitch: Agree, and as has happened here and here. But allow me to emphasize that my dilemma is when such a word does exist, but is a worse option than otherwise.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:25
  • 1
    I'd say that if a word is 'a worse option than otherwise' then it may be close to an answer but is not an answer itself. Of course, life is nuance and best to present the nuance, so an answer like 'No, there is no such single word' should have added to it 'There is this other word that is close but fails for these reasons but might be sufficient for your purposes... blah blha blha'
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:30

If a single word exists, but a phrase is better, then say that in your answer.

Include the single word to satisfy the explicit request for one, and then say that even though that word exists, there's a phrase that's better in certain circumstances. It would help to outline those circumstances.

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