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Longer words get message across faster, more effectively

January 25, 2011 - London

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has found that longer words carry more information and therefore, are more efficient in getting a message across.

It's a common notion amongst scientists that the length of a word was associated with how often it was used, and that short words are used more frequently than long ones - a theory first put forth by Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf, reports Nature.

But after analysing word use in 11 different European languages, Steven Piantadosi and colleagues found that word length was more closely correlated with how much information they convey than with how often they are used.

The team assumed for the purpose of the study that the more predictable a word is, the less informative it is - like the word 'nine' in 'A stitch in time saves nine' contains less information than it does in the phrase 'The word that you will hear is nine', because in the first case it is highly predictable.

They devised a method for estimating the information content of words in digitized texts by looking at how it is correlated with the preceding words.

For just a single preceding word, "we count up how often all pairs of words occur together in sequence, such as 'the man', 'the boy', 'a man', 'a tree' and so on. Then we use this count to estimate the probability of a word conditioned on the previous word - or more generally, the probability of any word conditioned on any preceding sequence of a given number of words," said Piantadosi.

Piantadosi and colleagues' study indicates that the relationship between word length and information content would make the language more efficient - both for reader and listener.

A phrase containing shorter and briefer words will have the meaning spread out instead of in lumps, thereby delivering the information in steps at a steady rate.

The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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