Big words don't make readers think you're smart

It’s a question that has hounded us all: What are the consequences of erudite vernacular used irrespective of necessity?

OK, not really. That’s the ironic title of an academic paper published in 2005 by Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Oppenheimer that studied the effects of stuffy, reader-unfriendly language. The subtitle brought it back down to Earth: “The problems of using long words needlessly.”

Oppenheimer’s study turned up some interesting findings about academic writing that apply outside the academic world, offering lessons for business writers, essayists, bloggers, novelists and anyone who wants to write better.

The big takeaway: Highfalutin, fancy language doesn’t make readers think you’re smart. Quite the opposite.

For the study, the author manipulated the language in written works, leaving some pieces in simple terms and putting others in unnecessarily complex language. Then readers were asked how smart the writer seemed to them.

The results: “a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.” In other words, the fancier the language, the dumber the writer was perceived to be. Read more about it here in my recent column.

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