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Why Do People Choose to Use Long Words?

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. (Strunk and White)

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there telling you to keep your writing simple, to use plain language, and to avoid jargon like the plague.  So why do so many people continue to ignore that good advice?

A conversation around the theme of simplicity got me thinking about this question.  What was it about complex, hard to read words that people were so stubbornly attached to?

A research study* looked into the way word choice changes the assessments we make about someone’s intelligence.  Students were asked to rate the intelligence of writers based on essays that they’d written, and make recommendations about their suitability for admission for graduate study.

The original versions were made more complex by substituting orginal words with their longest applicable thesaurus entries.

The results? The simpler the essay, the more likely it was the author would be rated as intelligent, and recommended for admission to the graduate school.

The author of the study (Daniel Oppenheimer) concludes:

“The pundits are likely right: write clearly and simply if you can, and  you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”

So why is it so hard to put the writing advice into practice?  In the same article Oppenheimer mentions that:

  • 86% of students at Stanford admitted to using more complicated language in their essays to make their work sound more valid or intelligent
  • Two thirds of the students said they’d used the thesaurus to choose words that are more complex so the content was more valid or intelligent

Some of the possible reasons that occurred to me include:

  • Desire to prove your topic is complex by using complex words
  • Fear of betraying lack of (classical) education
  • Natural desire to copy the language patterns of others
  • Little encouragement to use ‘ordinary’ words
  • Lack of time to ‘translate’ complex words used round about you into everyday words
  • Longer words keep subjects impersonal - reducing potential for personal criticism & attack
  • It’s the way people above you write - so you assume it’s the ladder to success

What about you?  Can you see any hidden (presumed) benefits of using long words that might explain the attachment?  Have you ever found yourself changing a ten-center word for a twenty dollar one to achieve a particular effect?

* Article details:

Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly Daniel Oppenheimer, 2006 (full research article)

The Secret of Impressive Writing? Keep it Plain and Simple (summary of article at Science Daily)

Hat tip to the (new) legal writer for pointing me towards the article: Use plain English, appear smarter (and more persuasive)

Photo Credit: The Long Book by Emborg on Flickr

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  1. [...] number of comments.  I’ve left it as a bit of a glimpse into some blasts from the past, and some posts that continue (much to my astonishment) to generate discussion and debate, even though I know the list will probably never alter (the way social media has changed means [...]

  2. Lance says:

    This is probably my biggest problem in writing. I’m glad you bring up Oppenheimer I always try to remind myself but fail that the focus should be on conveying an idea.