Once a teacher of English asked me to correct some of his pupils’ papers. Commenting on my work he said he was sorry he had not thought of telling me to use one or two uncommon words in each paper. “My pupils wouldn’t like your way of correcting,” he said. “I always see that in each paper I use one or two words that the pupil will have to look up in his dictionary for the meaning. This is the only way to show that I have a good knowledge of English.”
On another occasion an editor of a grammar asked me to write a few simple sentences as illustrative examples. I wrote “I am a boy”, “He has a book”, and some other easy and short sentences. He complained that those sentences did not look good enough though they were perfect simple sentences. Not good enough simply because there were no uncommon words in them.
Neither of these two men knew—I say “knew” instead of “know” because the teacher is dead and because I do not know whether the editor has yet come round to my view of the choice of words—that perfect English does not consist in the uncommon words. One cannot master English till one realizes this. It is a pity that there are many persons who realize it only after years of groping—if they realize it then.
Strange as it may appear, the mastery of common words is much more difficult than committing uncommon words to memory. And the trouble is that one is apt to neglect common words—perhaps not because they are difficult to master but because they are common.
“A word deserves attention because it is common” I hope you will always say to yourself.