Are big words clever? Finding fluency in your writing

Laughing little kid in oversized glasses with a bookWhat do you want your writing style to say about you? What impression do you hope the things you write at work leave on those who read them?

We know a few common answers to those questions, as we always check in on individual objectives at the start of our courses (so we can ensure everyone achieves what they came to achieve). Some say they want their writing to express authority or see them taken seriously. Others say they want it to make them sound smart – or better still, that rather slippery term, ‘professional’.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these goals. But what route will take you there? Often, people believe that particular road must be paved with formality, long words and jargon. Some course attendees even ask about ways they can extend their vocabulary.

It’s a reasonable request. It feels logical to associate a wide knowledge of words with intelligence. Most IQ tests include an assessment of vocabulary. And we may describe someone as erudite and eloquent (perhaps consciously, as those are big words themselves) if they use complex words in speech or writing.

But are we right to do that? What’s the evidence that long words make us sound more intelligent?


Testing the theory

A study by psychologists at Princeton University several years ago set out to settle the issue. What they found was surprising. Long, complex words – at least in documents – make you appear less intelligent, not more. It’s actually simplicity that raises your intellectual capital.

The researchers, led by Daniel Oppenheimer, reached this conclusion after conducting a series of no fewer than five experiments.

One, for example, amended personal statements from a simulated university admission test, replacing simple words with their longest equivalent from a thesaurus. Participants were then asked to read the passages and decide whether or not to admit the hypothetical students.

They rated both their confidence in their decision and how difficult the statement was to understand on a scale of one to seven. The results clearly showed that the authors of the more complex statements were rated more negatively – and were less likely to succeed.

Another of Oppenheimer’s experiments took two different versions of foreign texts translated into English and asked volunteers to rate the intelligence of the authors. The texts were all accurate translations – so the meaning and context was a constant in each example. But the translations varied in the complexity of their language. Once again, the results clearly showed that the more complex the words used, the more negatively participants judged the intelligence of the author.

The link between complex word use and negative ratings or perceived low intelligence held regardless of prior beliefs or the quality of the original text. It also applied across a wide range of documents.

The research tells us big words aren't clever – and using them may make people think you aren't either, says @Robert_Ashton @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet


Making it easy

Oppenheimer used this evidence to build on a key concept in communication science: fluency. This is the ease with which the brain can process a piece of writing.

He argued that the easier a piece of writing is to understand, the more credit we give to not just the author but the idea itself. The converse is also true: text that takes real effort to understand undermines the credibility of both.

To understand this, think for a moment not about writing but talking. We talk of conversations being difficult, for example, if they are one-sided or stilted. ‘It was all about her,’ you might say. ‘I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.’ Or ‘It was so difficult: I could hardly get a word out of him.’ A bad conversation tends to be one that lacks an easy sense of connection – and usually leaves us with (sometimes very) negative feelings about the other person.

On the other hand, conversations that flow generate positive feelings. They make us feel connected to the other person. ‘The time flew by,’ we say. ‘I felt like we really understood each other. I knew what she was going to say even before she said it.’


Building trust

Written communication, it turns out, is not so different. If a document flows or is easy to read, we’re more likely to trust it. If it doesn’t or isn’t, the odds are we won’t – or, at least, it’s going to have to work a lot harder to persuade us. And if we trust the advice in a document, we elevate the status of the author (at least in the context of the document).

Curiously, we even trust sayings that rhyme more than those that don’t. A study in 1999 at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania presented participants with a series of pairs of sayings. Each pair consisted of a rhyming statement and a non-rhyming equivalent, such as:

#1: ‘Woes unite foes’
#2: ‘Woes unite enemies’.

On average, participants gave sayings that rhymed an accuracy rating 20 per cent higher than their non-rhyming equivalent. (Yet when asked later whether they thought sayings that rhymed were generally more accurate, none agreed.) This unconscious tendency demonstrates what psychologists call the Rhyme-Reason bias – or the Keats heuristic, after the English Romantic poet.

This bias could be caused by the fact that rhymes are easy not just to read but to remember. By definition, remembering some things more than others means we think about them more. And the more we think about something, the more influenced we are by it.


Give yourself the advantage

Now, I’m not suggesting that you start submitting reports written in rhyming couplets. But the key takeaway here is the nature of how our minds process and respond to different uses of language – and how significant the effects can be. Notably, we really are putting ourselves at a disadvantage if we fill our work documents with unnecessarily long words. Those words are harder to process, and they will not position you well with the reader.

And contrary to what you may have been told, this doesn’t mean stripping out all jargon. By all means leave it in if – if – you are certain the reader will understand it. In fact, we all frequently use specialist terms in our professional lives (and outside them). Not only are they a good shortcut in the right context, but they establish rapport within groups who all have specialist knowledge.

But that doesn’t mean the words in between the jargon should be flowery. Prefer ‘start’ to ‘initiate’ and ‘help’ to ‘facilitate’. Otherwise, you won’t only make things harder for your target audience: you’ll be undermining your own credibility in the process.



McGlone, M.S and Tofighbakhsh, J (1999). The Keats heuristic: rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation. Poetics, 26: 235-244.

Oppenheimer, DM (2005). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20: 139-156.

Image credit: Serhiy Kobyakov / Shutterstock

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