Are big words clever? Finding fluency in your writing

What 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
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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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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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