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Using big words doesn’t make you sound smarter

George Orwell got it right: "Never use a long word where a short one will do."

By | Tom Hartsfield |

Does grandiloquent language, articulated via verbose constructions and multifarious lexicological composition, maximize information consumers’ appraisement of author intelligence? Or is simple better?

A fun psychology study conducted a few tests to probe this question. The author asked different readers to evaluate multiple versions of various texts, written with more or less complex wording and structure. The readers’ preferences were clear and revealed more interesting truths along the way.

For example, readers preferred graduate school admissions essays that used smaller and simpler words over essays that swapped in longer words from a thesaurus. The quality of the essays varied, but the author noted, “Complexity neither disguised the shortcomings of poor essays, nor enhanced the appeal of high-quality essays.” In other words, George Orwell got it right: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

But perhaps the readers weren’t put off by the big words but rather by the clunkiness of the text that resulted from altering it. To test this idea, an unknown piece of text (the abstract of a PhD thesis) written by an unknown author was given to different readers in two forms. The first was the original text, containing a deluge of long, complex words. The second was a simplified version that replaced some big words with smaller, simpler ones. Readers gave the simple version better marks, even though this time it was the altered text.

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