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Word Matters: Want to Look Smart? Write Simple.

Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Many of us may think that writing with big words makes us look smarter. One significant study says the opposite is true.

The study was conducted in 2006 by Daniel Oppenheimer, then professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. (He’s now professor of marketing and psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles.) In a series of five experiments, Professor Oppenheimer asked 71 college students to respond to writing samples of varying complexity. The students were asked to rate both their understanding of the samples and the authors’ intelligence.

The professor found that people tended to rate the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language as higher than those who wrote more complex works. He also found that people thought the writers who used plain and simple words were more trustworthy.

Image credit: Jingxi Zhai / Daily Bruin
For his efforts, Oppenheimer received the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature (note the “Ig.”) The Ig Nobels, awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research, recognizes research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. The professor says he believes he won the award in part because of the paper’s title: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” But he’s serious about the research and has expressed gratitude for the attention it’s brought to the importance of clear, simple writing.

“I think it’s important to point out that this study is not about problems with using long words, it’s about problems with using long words needlessly,” Oppenheimer told reporters. “If the best way to say something involves using a complex word, then by all means do so. But if there are several equally valid ways of expressing your ideas, you should go with the simpler one.”

I couldn’t agree more — with my usual advice that if you must use a technical term, briefly define it in first use. Your readers will thank you. And now we know they’ll think you’re smart, too.
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