February 23, 2018

by Mitch Ziems

Have you ever tried to read something, only to give up because it feels like the author was more focused on assaulting you with words than making their point as effectively and concisely as possible?

Don’t be embarrassed. If you threw Finnegans Wake into the fireplace, or slammed your laptop shut in frustration at a bumbling blog post, the fault doesn’t lie with you.

Amateur or experimental writers generally work in this way in the hope that their verbiage will establish credibility. Research shows that it actually has the opposite effect.

In Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, Princeton University’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer delves into his student’s seemingly compulsive desire to use complex language in their writing.

Oppenheimer explains that, regardless of the subjective quality of the work, less common words often act as obstacles for the reader. Even if they understand the word, it tends to interrupt their reading rhythm.

That alone wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to a language teacher, but Oppenheimer went deeper. He wanted to understand why a student would use a complex word when a simple one would suffice.

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 – it had come from a thesaurus, not their vocabulary.

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 was replaced with the most complex synonym suggested by Microsoft Word, and a final version which replaced each noun, verb, and adjective with the same.

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

Proving Oppenheimer’s findings, original submissions were far more likely to result in admission than those even slightly altered.

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

Four versions of a paragraph from Descartes’ Meditation IV was given to subjects. One was the original, unaltered text. A second was the same, but accredited to an anonymous author. The final two versions were prepared under each of these names, but rewritten to include more complex language.

Both the Descartes original and edited version were considered the best – scoring 6.5 for the original (on a 7 point scale), 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 might have felt 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 ‘less professional’ fonts were deemed to be of lesser quality, while essays produced by printers that were close to running out of ink also fared poorly.

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

Without fail, the simpler an essay seemed, the higher marks they received from the students.


Everyone who has ever taken a language course has been taught that vocabulary is a crucial 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 and presumption of intelligence that proves they care about what they are writing.

That’s not true. Vocabulary is crucial because it allows us to choose the right word for each situation.

For instance, if you had a group of people you considered smart, would you feel confident referring to them all as savants? 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?

There’s a simple lesson here, whether you’re writing a novel or an article just like this one: think big, write small. Writing simply is crucial to imparting ideas, no matter how complex the ideas themselves might be.

Fail to apply this to your own work, and prepare to go unheard.

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