Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should: The Case Against Using Big Words in Your Writing

complex-wordsIf you’ve been writing for a long time, you’re well read and/or well educated, and you happen to have a large vocabulary, it’s not uncommon to want to show it off. After all, long and complicated words that only a handful of people can understand make you sound smarter, right?

Naturally, the answer is no — in fact, using big words may even make you sound less intelligent. 

According to Professor Oppenheimer

Professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, who works at the UCLA Anderson School of Management as an associate professor of psychology, won a Nobel Prize in literature for browsing this very subject. His paper was called, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly.”

It argued using shorter words makes people seem more intelligent, and using longer and more complex words makes them appear small-minded. The study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, and it probably made a lot of big-word users feel a little silly.

Stop Trying and You May Succeed

One of the main issues is that people are always trying to sound smart. All the best writing is simple and straightforward, and delivers ideas clearly. The KISS principle of “keep it simple, stupid” applies in writing as much as anywhere else.

If you try to sound intelligent or well read, chances are you’ll fall flat with the writing and you won’t sound intelligent at all. Even if you are intelligent and know what you’re talking about, if a shorter word will do, use it most of the time.

Sometimes, it’s nice to mix up the words if you’ve been using a particular word over and over. You don’t have to substitute an overly complex word in its place, but if it is longer, the writing shouldn’t suffer.

Also, if you can’t get your meaning across without using a longer word, then go ahead and use it — communication is what writing is all about.

A Few Examples For You

In case you were wondering, here are a few examples of bigger words you can change to smaller words for a simpler, more direct message.

Instead of ameliorate, use improve or make better.

Instead of enumerate use list or count.

Instead of evince use reveal or demonstrate clearly.

Instead of disseminate use spread out or scatter.

Instead of henceforth use from now on.

Fight the urge to use more complex words!