The Urge to use Big Words




It usually starts in university -that pressure to impress; that urge to use big words to fill up space and exude a certain level of intelligence. This sense of desperation often flows into the business world where more technical jargon and sesquipedalian are used. Oh-sesquipedalian means “long words.”

Part of the problem with words like sesquipedalian is that they in fact end up making us look less intelligent. Studies, including those conducted at Princeton show that readers can see right through the big words; words that even the writer barely understands.

Princeton Psychologist, Daniel Oppenheimer worked with several essay samples while conducting a study on words. He decided to replace the grandiose words with simple words in a handful of essays. With the remaining papers he replaced the nouns, verbs and adjectives with the longest synonyms he could find. Oppenheimer then handed the essays off to a group of 70 students to evaluate. As the complexity of the language increased, the evaluation of the intelligence of the writers/authors decreased.

Oppenheimer thinks the results make perfect sense. He points out that using a thesaurus to swap out words doesn’t always translate properly. He used the word “angry” as an example. It means one thing, but to replace it with the synonyms “furious” or “choleric” means you are saying something different. When an essay is full of these it can have a huge impact on the overall meaning.

People tend to think that if they write the way they speak, it won’t be intelligent enough. The truth is- if you write what you know; if you understand the subject and write in simple, concise language, you will come across smart.

During the Princeton study three separate experiments seem to prove the point that big isn’t necessarily better. In one test, people were asked to rate an essay with simple language versus an essay with more complicated language. The essay with the simple language received the higher rating.  The second experiment involved foreign text that went through two different translations. The first translation involved simple language and the second translation involved more complicated language.  Everyone deemed the translation with simple language more intelligent. Finally, in the third experiment, the first 144 words were lifted from a research paper. One document left the words as is, while the second document replaced any words that were 9 letters or more with smaller words. The readers rated the paper with the smaller words more intelligent.

So how does this translate into the real business world? Mark Halpern is one of North Americas top marketing psychologists. He calls using big words a “wallet closer”.  Simply put if you run any kind of business and are trying to sell a product or service people are not going to buy from you if they don’t understand what you are selling. In fact, they will quickly tune out and get turned off if they think you are trying to talk over them or show off with fancy language. Experts like Halpern warn that often times in business the language you use can be construed (oops perhaps I  should have used the word ‘seen’) as pretentious.

The experts seem to agree, whether it is a school assignment or a work-related project the approach should be the same- do your research, know your subject and have confidence in your ability to get your message across without relying on sesquipedalian.

For more on the Princeton study see the link below:


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