November 22, 2016

by Mitch Ziems

Have you ever found yourself reading a novel, only to be repulsed by the language used by the author?

I’m not talking about offensive words, but complex ones. The kind of words so pretentiously employed, so overburdened with significance, that they disconnect you from what you’re reading?

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, studies have shown that when writers use particular terms in the hope of establishing credibility, they are actually doing the opposite.

In Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, Princeton University’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer looks at his student’s almost compulsive desire to use complex language to bolster the perception of their intelligence. He notes that regardless of the overall quality of the student’s work, less common words often acted as obstacles for the reader.

Whether he understood the word or not was irrelevant; as is the case for any language teacher, Oppenheimer looked for understanding as to why the word was used in the first place.

When 110 undergraduates were polled, 86.4% admitted to (changing) the words in an academic essay to make the essay sound more valid or intelligent by using complicated language”. 66% said they didn’t even understand what the alternative word meant, instead turning to a thesaurus or search engine for help.

Oppenheimer ran five experiments as part of his study:

Experiment One presented subjects with fragments of several essays. Each fragment was provided in three different versions – the original, a slightly altered version where every third noun, verb, or adjective were replaced with the longest synonym suggested by Microsoft Word, and a final version which replaced each noun, verb, and adjective.

Subjects were then asked to decide whether they would accept the writer into a Princeton English course, and whether they thought the essay easy to read.

It may come as no surprise that the original submissions were far more likely to lead to the writer receiving admission to the course than even those that had been only slightly altered.

Experiment Two expanded upon this by testing how presumed intelligence impacted the results.

A paragraph from Descartes’ Meditation IV was given to subjects. One was the original, unaltered text. A second version was the same, but accredited to ‘Anonymous’. Two versions altered to include complex language were then prepared under the names of each writer.

Descartes scored highest in both – 6.5 for the original, 5.6 for the altered – followed by 4.7 and 4.0 for the Anonymous author. Perception proved key, so it’s no surprise that those who gave the 5.6 rating to the edited Descartes may feel it worth emulating the author in their own essays.

Experiments Four and Five looked at how other factors influenced the presumption of intelligence, specifically font and readability. Anyone who cringes at the sight of Comic Sans won’t be surprised to learn the same work presented in a less professional font were deemed to be of lesser quality, while essays produced by printers that had less ink than the average also fared poorly.

It’s Experiment Three that proves to be the most important though, providing a counterpoint to Experiment One by altering essays to make them simpler rather than more complex.

Unequivocally, the pieces penned in the most basic words were considered the best.

But why?

Everyone who has ever taken a language course has been taught that a vocabulary is an important tool. As the figures show, most – at least early on – come to the conclusion that the reason for this is because it provides their writing with an authenticity that proves they care about what they are writing.

That’s not true. Vocabulary is important because it allows us to choose the right word for each situation. For instance, a person can be smart, but does that make them a savant? Very unlikely. What if someone is clever. Are they cunning? Colloquially, the two can mean the same, but unless you understand the difference, how can you treat them as the same?

Don’t talk big; think big. Writing simply is crucial to imparting ideas. Go against this simple truth, and prepare to go unheard.

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