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The big problem with big words (hint: they make you look stupid)

Using big words makes you look stupid.

Seriously…

Even if you use them the right way, people will think you aren’t as smart as someone who uses smaller words.

And new research from Princeton confirms it.

I go over it in this new video.

Be Careful Using Big Words – Here’s Why

Why should you care about something so trivial?

If you’re looking to convert browsers into buyers, you’ve got to build trust and credibility. Now imagine how hard that would be if people think you’re an idiot…

As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Well, according to this new research, it would seem that the RIGHT word is the smaller word.

To get the full story, watch the video.

The Big Problem With Big Words

I fancy myself a wordsmith. That’s why you’ll never see me use words like utilize, synergy, feckless, or any other pompous word.

I’ve always railed against people who use big words for the sake of using big words. But now, I’ve finally got research that allows me to tell these people:

Listen up you big dumb idiot: Using big words HURTS you. And I’ve got research from Princeton that proves it.

Speaking of which, I’m Derek Halpern, the founder of Social Triggers. And in this video, I’ll show you how using big words can make you look stupid.

Let’s get all scientific.

Princeton researchers ran three experiments:

In the first experiment, they wrote admissions essays. The first was an original essay. The second, a moderate-complexity essay. And the third, a high-complexity essay.

How were these essays rated?

The simple essays were given higher ratings than the moderately complex ones, and the moderately complex ones were given higher rating than the highly complex ones. Or in other words…

Using big words can KILL your chance at attending college.

Use big words and you’ll suffer the consequences.

In the second experiment, they wanted to control for content. So, they found foreign texts. In one scenario, they created a simple translation. In another, they created a complex translation.

What happened?

Once again, the more complicated vocabulary negatively influenced raters’ assessment of the text. And this was found regardless of prior expectations of the author’s intelligence.

Or again, in other words: using big words makes people hate you.

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And finally, in the third, most telling experiment, here’s what happened:

Researchers got together some research. And they took the first 144 words of that research. In one case, they left it intact. In another case, they replaced all words with nine or more letters with its second shortest entry in the Microsoft Word Thesaurus. They then had people rate the excerpt.

What happened?

When people read the less complicated version, the people reading it assumed the author was more intelligent than when reading the more complicated version.

The data is clear.

Using big words makes people think you’re stupid.

Stop using them.

Now, here’s what’s great about this video:

Even though I focused in on how using big words makes people think you’re stupid, it’s also a proven WALLET CLOSER.

When you’re in business, you might be tempted to over describe what you do with complex language to make it sound like you’re a badass. But people don’t buy what they don’t understand.

So, using big words makes you look stupid. And it also takes money you rightfully deserve right out of your business.

So, don’t use them.

Now I have a question for you:

What big words do you see people use that they should eliminate from their language? What would you replace them with?

I’ll start…

When I went to the vet to get my dog neutered (I had to because of a condition he had), the vet made a mistake that made me think she was stupid. I did a video about it here.

So, leave a comment below this video.

Also, if you liked this video, make sure you subscribe to my channel, and then hop on over to SocialTriggers.com and get on the email list.

I send out videos just like this each week and you won’t want to miss them.

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201 comments Leave a comment
Elisha

Some words are too big for somebody to even remember after 5 seconds.I would rather desist from using such words.

Ryan

I totally disagree with this article. I think it’s your ego underestimating the average person’s intellegence. Just because someone doesn’t use large words, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand the meaning of them when you use them in a sentence. I understand the average person can’t keep up if you were to use 5-10 large words in every sentence but throwing one or two in, most people can figure out what they mean or can recall their meaning, even if they previously forgot about it. If they cant, AND they don’t ask you the meaning, then they’re probably too stupid to make a judgement on your intellegence anyways. Me, personally, sometimes I feel there’s no other words or group of words that can get my point across or be able to describe something in enough detail to ensure the recipient can get as close an image as what’s in my head without using some bigger, more descriptive or more finely tuned words.

    Naomi

    Ryan I like what you say and I agree.

    David

    I agree with you Ryan, sometimes when you have to explain a certain aspect of a situation, it is better to use a more complex word to better articulate the meaning. Take Greek for example, there are many words that means love(e.g. Love meaning brotherly love vs intimate sexual love), but all mean different type of love. Which has drastic effects on the meaning of the sentence. Similar to “said,whisper, shout” each has a different connotation and can change the tone/meaning completely

    Ryan

    I forgot to add that using big words can significantly reduce the amount of words you use and thus, the amount of time it takes your readers to get the jist of what you have to say. ie. “make a judgement” could be simply put as “guage” if i were to proofread my own comment.

      Thanh

      smart = knowing many things
      smart aleck = knowing many things + *needing* to show people you’re smart
      wise = knowing many things + making it easier for people to understand

      The point isn’t to avoid using *any* big words.

      The point is to avoid using *unnecessarily* big words, when smaller words still get the *idea* across.

      “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.”
      – quote (mis)attributed to Albert Einstein

Nerf

Honestly what I got from this was don’t use big words because other people will think something about you. Or in other words; Limit your vocabulary in order to avoid appearing pretentious in the eyes of individuals who may be projecting their insecurities onto you. There’s a difference between assuming and being knowledgeable and if you’re on the assuming side you’re not trying to spread knowledge, which is a valuable commodity in any circumstance, just make yourself feel better.
“Why would they use a word I don’t know? They must be trying to sound smart in front of me.” Vs “I know they used that word wrong, let me correct them.”

    Ryan

    Yeah, you nailed it better than me. This article was stupid, but the title drew me in to see if the author could come up with any valid points to his argument. He didn’t.

amb

I think the point is using the right word!!!

    RYAN

    Not the case, if you read the article and this part then you can see the point was not that people who use more “big” words often mis-use them. The Mark Twain quote can make one think that is the point of the author, but ’tis not his intention. AS you can see form the part:

    “Well, according to this new research, it would seem that the RIGHT word is the smaller word.”

    So basically the idea is he is saying the average person has a small personal vocabulary and when they hear a big word that is unfamiliar to them, then they become confused and unable to follow a person’s statement. A this point, they decide that a person dumb if they don’t understand them.

    Its a paradoxical thought process, but one I feel is legitimately the norm on our society. Maybe it is the lack of humility and inability for people to realize they are not as intelligent as the believe. So once they are confused, they automatically assume it is not because they can’t grasp the information, but because the information is being given by some one not smart enough to convey the message. Capiche?

Frida Kahlo

I constantly see this problem with students. I am currently doing an online degree and seriously some people put too much effort in their words, it not only makes them look pathetic but when an instruction has been given to write just a certain amount of words I think you should do what it says. I don’t know if they want to impress the teacher or what? Or to show that they have read a lot? My ass! It might be the age I don’t know, but for example I just read what one classmate posted and didn’t even finish reading it cause it was like a 1000 essay, this kind of people I think would be the less suitable to sell something online. They need to get a life 🙂

    Frida Kahlo

    The funny thing is that ‘this person’ doesn’t even have a job. I think now I understand why. Lol

Dave

Whenever I hear the word, “stakeholder,” I visualize an assistant Vampire Killer.

chris

Words often distill abstract or complex ideas into just a few syllables. If used appropriately, they can paint an elegant picture with minimal waste. Like any composed work, an essay can be over-engineered, but it can also be beautiful and precise. I think the most important message is the *responsible* use of sophisticated words rather than their outright avoidance for fear of sounding stupid……..

    Wes

    You’re either ironic or dont get it. I believe you to be ironic.

    You made a comment in a way that made me not like you. I understood all the words you used. So I like you now because you made me not like you on purpose right?

    PS. The video incorrectly assumes people think others are stupid for using “big words”. The logic should be that people like others for being able to communicate at an easily digestable rate. The three tests by Stanford showed who was chosen over an other. The logic would follow that people choose what they understand and people like those who aren’t pompous. It is not about the writer’s intelligence.

    Your comment is quite eloquent and well written which I appreciate on a more artistic level. But you do a good job at making me not like you. So kudos to you for placing this gem here.

    -trolling ’cause it’s 5am and I need attention and I just read something about how people don’t like overly happy people. Then the overly happy people compared themselves to cronically depressed people at the opposite end of the spectrum. Talk about stupid.

angel

Anxious shouldn’t be used, I have a friend that said to me I’m Anxious on seeing you, Anxious meaning is depressed, worried, I believe that’s the meaning of anxious, I was up set , if she’s trying to make a point. Just say inLayman terms

    Naomi

    I don’t think it means depressed, more anticipating t c you. Could b in a good way

Aaron

I think that, without realizing it, his advice really only applies to a very particular audience. I don’t think it’s a matter of his advice being wrong, I think it’s a matter of his advice being directed at all people, in general. I think the truth of the matter is that, the research really only shows that big words that are used unnecessarily create the impression of someone being less intelligent. As they did in their study, where they lengthened words just for the sake of lengthening words. I believe the real issue is when people who truly do not have a handle or a deep understanding of the words they are using, try to use them anyway, and end up in advertently using them at inappropriate times, and in inappropriate ways.

Christopher

i have read a lot of comments on Derek’s post and clearly those disagreeing with Derek have no idea on how to copy write to sell products – the best book on copy writing is Cashvertising and Derek’s views are 100% aligned with Cashvertising! I would bet good money that those criticism from this post never netted 1m plus in profits life Derek has!

Christopher

ameliorate is a douche bag term used by try hard wankers

Ryan

I have limited “big words” in my vocabulary, mainly because I don’t understand the rest. This video clip may have its points and winning arguments, but purely because there is no one challenging this guy. I usually kick back and laugh while watching these guys show off their “big boy words” with sentences like “I am smart because I read a lot and I have a lot of articulate things to say because i am smart” and then make videos about smart dumb people..

This video really discourages people to read and educate themselves and practice english amongst colleagues, friends and family without judgement of course. If you’re going to use “big words”, use it to use less “small words” rather than replacing a perfectly fine “small word” for a 10 syllable “big word” to feel edumacated…

John

A worse word than ‘utilize’ is LEVERAGE. I have a co-worker who uses this word about 10 times a day in conversation and email. It annoys everybody! “Let’s leverage that code to the new project”, “I’m going to leverage that email in the meeting”, etc. Annoying as hell.

    Nene

    Maybe he is annoying cos he uses the word LEVERAGE in a “not-so-appropriate” context but I think the word leverage sounds more calm, gentle and less noisy in pronunciation as compared to the word UTILIZE.

Robert

None of the research mentioned in this video indicates that using big words makes people think you’re ‘stupid’. It only means people have a distaste for sesquipedalian writing. And when the papers were written with the intention of being so, and not with intention of using the right word at the right time, this is to be expected. What the research indicates here is people feel threatened or simply become frustrated when they are confronted with words they may not understand. I would do a similar study, asking the subjects to read over the works of early 20th century and contemporary writers. I would then see which writers they thought sounded more intelligent and with that, I’d expect a totally different conclusion. There’s a difference between being ostentatiously sesquipedalian and being eloquent.

    chris

    Trust me. Nobody – anywhere, under any circumstances, is threatened by the use of a word like ” sesquipedalian”. It makes the writer look desperate to impress and lacking command of language. (Not a single other word was more succinct, fit the rhythm of the sentence? And you had to use it TWICE?)

    Bottom line : If you can’t write clearly, you sound dumb. Doesn’t matter if you really aren’t. Doesn’t matter if you know many polysyllabic words. The reader lent you their ears, and you made a an awkward, self-conscious attempt to impress them rather than communicate.

    Dumb.

    Michael

    Of course, they do. They’re college students! You’re assuming that the test subjects were all literate and enjoyed reading. Sometimes the right word, Mr. Twang, IS a big word. So much for your research. And your misleading title, as well.

Catchy Slogans

Actually big words written by writers can be well crafted and make sense in the right situations!

Georgia Wingate

Why do we try and downplay ones intelligence? If you use the words in the proper context, it doesn’t make you look stupid.
Eloquent use of langue should be considered a good thing. Education and intelligence should never be degraded. Stupidity should.
And thus we have generations of dumb ass people.

    Bob

    A perfect example of a person trying make herself look smart! Well done stranger.

    Korey Kozlowski

    Preach!

Josh

Please stop saying

‘reach out’ when you really mean “I will get in touch with you”.

Please stop saying “stakeholders”. No one cares what that means.

And most of all, please please PLEASE stop using the word “literally” so damn much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dan

Well, “big” words used improperly, like any sophisticated thing, is an embarrassment. But to “dumb down” speech for the sake of perception, or acceptance is, at best, disingenuous.

Words convey meaning. They are symbolic representations of ideas and definitions, and each word that emerges in language has a distinct purpose. Culturally, some things or ideas have one or two words to represent them. Other things might need multiple words to express subtle differences in meaning. (For example, in certain Eskimo languages, “snow” has many different words to convey different types and contexts).

Having said that, a “speech act” depends on context and contingency of audience. To drop “big” words into a conversation for the sake of “sounding smart” is akin to a novice wrestler attempting a lateral drop throw. It usually ends poorly, and someone might get hurt.

Meredith

My pet peeve would be, without a doubt, the new ” affirmative” or “yes”…(drum roll, please)… ABSOLUTELY! Why does no one say a simple “yes” or “ok” anymore? Ex. “Would you like your salad dressing on the side?” “Absolutely.” Aargggh! Isn’t that overkill? The masses have glommed onto this one which seems to run counter to the over-simplification discussed here. I also hate “organic” used to describe anything other than food. Artists seem to like this word and all I can think of is how they have incorporated carbon chains into whatever it is they’ve done. Perhaps they mean “earthy.” I’m not sure. I like big words. I like when smart people use them correctly. It gives me hope for mankind. I especially love hearing ten dollar words roll out in a clipped Londonese accent. It is music to my ears (I’m American.) I automatically tack on about 25 IQ points to the speaker. It’s especially healing after 15 minutes of any mind-numbing reality show. Sorry, I don’t agree. People who have a big vocabulary and use the words correctly will always sound more educated and just plain smarter to me. Suspected education=better chance of being understood.

Leon

Can we talk about the most commonly misused word in the WORLD? (I would think, seeing as how it even shows up on advertisements)

Healthy.

It is my BIGGEST pet peeve when one uses healthy to describe a food. Ex. “Guys, I am eating healthy today- no pizza for me!” or “This salad is really healthy for you”

Healthy is a state of being. HEALTHFUL would be the correct word in describing the nutritious value of a food being beneficial to oneself.

I hate it hate it hate it. I hate it especially because it is used in advertisements and there is seemingly no attempt to correct this misuse.

Morgan

The best way when speaking to someone (in my opinion) is speaking on the same level as them. Same holds true for social gatherings. You present yourself as being no better than others. Always have confidence. However, I think their are certain times to use big words when talking, but limit it to a few at most…….Off subject: What would you think of a hot Sicilian woman using big words in that language to describe the awesome sex your having, Derek?

    Ryan

    I agree entirely, and its a great way to leave your audience feeling patronised

Jamie

This was a very cromulant video

Dakota @ FAQ

I like it!

Big word:
“Soteriology” replaced with it’s definition, “the doctrine of salvation”.

That’s the only one I can think of that stands out. Seemed ridiculous to me for anyone to use it. It now makes sense from watching your video. 😀

Ronnie Somerville

Mike, your skin shouldn’t crawl.

Think “utility”.

An object may have “utility”.
If we “utilize” that object , we are “making good use” of its “utility”.
On the other hand if we “use” it , we may be “using” it badly.

It’s a subtle difference.

Mike

Derek – you said my pet peeve “utilize” right at the top of your video and I’m sure many others voted for it as well. I can’t think of where it would be better than just saying “used” (even though Ronnie Somerville above says that it’s not even the equivalent of “use”).

Every time I hear the word utilize casually dropped into conversation…my skin instantly crawls.

Ronnie Somerville

And…. utilize means “make practical and effective use of”
it is not the equivalent of use.

Ronnie Somerville

What a lot of bollocks.

I think Derek hasn’t read the research.

The Princeton piece is at: http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/psy3001/files/simple%20writing.pdf

The Princeton author himself uses words which Derek would seem to deem too “difficult”, such as:
maxim
Gricean
provenance
correlates
disfluency
manipulation
dichotomous
comprehension
synonyms
alogorithm
confounds (as a noun)
stimuli
grammatical
paradigm

The SIMPLEST of the English texts used words like:
antecedents
malleable
alloying
perspectives
(!)

And I think the comparison of the English texts was flawed.
The technique was “every applicable word lengthened”.
OF COURSE this is going to lead to a text that reads less intelligibly!

The translations are from Descartes 4th Meditation.
The elephant in the room here is:
Which one of the translations conveyed the meaning that Descartes, writing in Latin, intended?

Here they are:

From Tweyman’s (1993) translation
‘Many other matters respecting the attributes of God and my own nature or mind remain for consideration; but I shall possibly on another occasion resume the investigation of these. Now (after first noting what must be done or avoided in order to arrive at a knowledge of the truth) my principal task is to endeavor to emerge from the state of doubt into which I have these last days fallen, and to see whether nothing certain can be known
regarding material things’.

From Heffernan’s (1990) translation
‘There remain to be investigated by me many things concerning the attributes of God, and many things concerning me myself or the nature of my mind. But I shall perhaps resume these things at another time, and now nothing seems to be more urgent (after I have noticed against what were to be cautioned and what were to be done in order to reach the truth) than that I might try to emerge from the doubts into which I have gone in the pervious (sic) days
and that I might see whether something certain concerning material things could be had’.

Jeff Goins

“People don’t buy what they don’t understand.”

Nice.

Jeremy

Oh wow, this post reminds me of idiocracy.

Never stop learning big words, people. Learn what they mean, how to use them, and how to identify the audience to which you’re speaking.

Brawndo anyone?

amber

using big words just to sound smart is dumb. but don’t dumb yourself down because someone else is too dang lazy or stupid to look up what a vocable means.

but yes, be sure you make sense to the person you’re selling to!

Noelle

I am of the opinion that synergize should be removed completely from the English language. Why can’t we say “Collaborate”, or “Work Together”. At meetings, half the time I have to listen to drivel like, “We need to integrate action-driven synergies in regards to networking solutions .” WTF does that even mean. HTF did that person get a job. WTF are they getting paid to talk?

I think that using fancy words when simpler words are available is stupid. When you are communicating, your goal is to say what you want to say as clearly and efficiently as possible, and using complex language when speaking to average people defeats that goal. Doctors and scientists use complex language and jargon with each other because it’s more efficient for them, but there’s no reason to speak that way when it’s not completely guaranteed that your audience will understand.

I treat long, complex, or infrequently used words like candy, and sprinkle them here and there to make things delicious, but not sickening. Sometimes I use words like “Drivel” instead of “Nonsense”, because they add a good rhythm to a sentence and make it flow better. Other times, I use “Drivel” because when you put enough emphasis on the last syllable, it makes people laugh.

Adam Roseland

me like 🙂

Ryan

Working at an online ad agency, we often joke about these words as well. With that said, I’ve yet to come up with an alternative work for Synergy! I can’t let it go!

Randy Stuppard

Great video but there is a question:

Does using big words actually make you look stupid?
OR
Has the ability to understand the meaning of large words decreased?
(or are we just lazy?)

Moot point because we are in the here and now but wanted thoughts from others.

    Andrew

    I think big words make the writer seem oblivious, not stupid. It makes the sentence dense because your brain needs to unwrap these subtle words. Some people fall in love with the words, but it’s the thoughts that matter. From worst to best:
    1. Poor thought, simple words – some people don’t have the horsepower
    2. Poor thought, complex words – points for trying, ranges from sad to hilarious
    3. Clear thought, complex words – This is being *lazy* for an intelligent person to write. Yes it gets the point across but your brain hates it. Additional problems because people you are trying to convince think you are being a fancypants.
    4. Clear thought, simple words – This is the master level. The language gets out of the way. Advertising has simple, clear language because it helps my thought get into your brain.

Myufi

I agree with the disgust in buzzwords or whatever people use because they think it’s supposed to sell a product. Authenticity is key, because being true to yourself and your words helps you connect with your listener. This is pretty much a given, and it’s a fantastic skill to be able to accomplish this effectively.

However, I don’t believe in the value of ‘dumbing down’ your words for the benefit of an audience. Being a pompous twit is easily recognizable as a tryhard or eccentric, and is not recommended, but certain “big words” are spoken in day-to-day text that are acceptable in regular conversation now and then. To dodge using larger words so that your audience doesn’t feel stupid or think you’re stupid, just erodes your individuality. If everybody spoke the same simpler words, we’d no longer use language to associate with the sort of sophistication related to education or integrity. It would also encourage disdain of lingual flexibility, such as appreciating foreign accents or individual quirks. You may disagree with me, but I believe there is some truth in this.

    Casey

    Can’t agree with you more, Myufi!

    The great “dumbing-down” of America. Seriously, who were the testers? And big words? The comments show that people can’t even come up with any that are used. Most are misplaced and misused business terminology like synergy.

    Yet, it matters not, because the point was rightly made: marketing messages must be clear and concise and informal, using colloquial words and even slang in some cases.

    Overall though, Americans are suffereing from seeming stupid because of an inability to utilize even small words to communicate correctly. “Where are you going to?” Repetitive and you sound stupid. “Where is the store at?” Ugh. Then Americans can’t even use who and whom correctly. For some reason “to whom” is just too much. Ridiculous. This move to lowest common denominator is bastardization of the language and is setting Americans behind in the world. Yes, I am an American, one that has spent an inordinate amount of time in England where they are not afraid of the loquacious. Brits have command of their language and are so adept that they use slang and polysyllabic words seamlessly in a sentence. I’m on a roll! Too much of America is indeed feckless. 🙂

Sarah L

“Utilize” instead of “use” kinda grates on my nerves. “Plethora,” when not used tongue-in-cheek, is another one.
What makes me really hurt for the speaker is when he uses a big word that sounds close to a big word that would make sense in the context of what he’s saying, but the word he actually uses doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.
Sorry if you already covered this in the video. I’m not able to listen to it right now, out of consideration for others in the room.
Definitely sharing this.

Nick Pezzopane

I don’t know if it’s the big word, or the pretentiousness, or just that it’s cliche, but I cringe every time I see the phrase “we provide turnkey solutions” on any business homepage.

Steve

The one that drives me up the wall is ‘leverage’! I believe it has a valid meaning in the financial world (correct me if I’m wrong), but people are using it all over the place when the word ‘use’ was, and still is, perfectly fine.

    Noelle

    Ugh, “Leverage”.
    “We need to leverage new synergies to boost our sales.”
    That was an actual sentence that I heard last week. I heard that sentence and I did not throw myself through our sliding glass door. I am very proud of myself for mustering the strength to not shout, “You mean we need to use teamwork to sell stuff!”

Rhonda

Hi Derek,

does using the word superfragilisticexpialidocious make me look like a jerk? LOL

Kelly

Hi Derek,

Ever read Sally Hogshead’s FASCINATE?

Kelly

justagrumpyoldman

This video left me with a sense of discombobulation and escalated the qualitative plangency of the cognitive dissonance resulting from my vacillation as to the validity of your postulation, that the magnitude of the locution will differentiate the injudicious person from those gifted of erudition.
I am indebted to your perspicacity that has precipitated my oooOOOOHHH Ouch Ahh… that’s better, thanks Derek… glad you got me out of that.

Agreed, nothing better than reading simple words with direct meaning straight to the mind and heart of the buyer

Cheers
Grumpy

Charlene

What’s 10 times worse than the misuse of big words? Blog comments SEVERAL paragraphs long! I mean, who wants to read them? One might as well just pick up a book on economy and read that… In a word (or two-ish): drop-dead boring…..

Parul

What were my teachers doing then? Thankfully I use far less of what they taught.

As an architect our earnings are related to how well we can talk and convince the client. More often than not I end up simplifying a word I used because it is just not something that is not commonly used.
When I write on my blog though I try to keep it simple. How complicated can you make travel posts!

In India it is a common notion that the person who churns out puff-words knows more, maybe because English is not our first language. While preparing my debate for school events teachers would advise to replace words which i would never use in regular conversation. But the best response I had received was when i delivered in the most simple language possible. Didnot win that one!

So what do you think will you be impressed with bigger words in another language you are not really good at or which is not your native language?

Marsha from YesYesMarsha.com

LOVE THIS!

Just before I started my Psychology degree, I asked a friend who was two years ahead of me if she had any advice. She said:

“Always write as if you’re writing for the layman”

I’m convinced that taking this advice is the reason I did as well as I did (UK equivalent of magna cum laude), in spite of spending most of my time running the student radio station!

Shaun

Really enjoy the videos Derek!

I must say though, the conclusions drawn from the study and by many of the commenters are rather irksome. If someone is highly and unequivocally intelligent, I highly doubt the use of sophisticated language will make them appear dumb. Others may feel dumb in their presence, but that is another matter entirely. People like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Stephen Fry use sophisticated language and they are clearly intelligent people. I remember first reading Joseph Heller’s amazing classic ‘Catch 22’ and having to use a dictionary every third sentence. It didn’t detract from the obvious conclusion that the man was a genius.

Use language appropriate to your audience. And if you love the English language and the beautiful subtlety of meaning that it can convey, then don’t only hang out with people who insist on killing the word ‘loquacious’ by replacing it with ‘chatty’. I mean, come on!

Michelle Dale

Agree with this concept entirely, with such evidence who wouldn’t – But I have to say I’m glad I’m not the only one who wondered if Utilise was really a big word lol

I guess to go into this a little further, did the study of the reports etc… contain contain the word Utilise?

Brian

Hashtags seem to be all the rage nowadays. They seem to be the simplest nugget you can digest because they are typically single words or phrases, rather than sentences, mashed together. And it seems like people like (for some reason) and understand them easier!

This makes me think I should try to sprinkle some in, except I really don’t like hashtags that are substituted for actual sentences. Is there a balance to reach here?

Phyllis Schmidt

I keep a scrap of paper on the wall next to my desk. It’s a quote by William Penn, “Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.”

Xan Barksdale

Derek,

That was a profound broadcast that enlightened me about eliminating some of the more complex vernacular from my business strategy.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Great video.

janet bonarski

So instead of writing “Do you like to pursue your own inquiry into questions that intrigue you?” How about: “Do you like to follow your own way to research questions you are curious about?”

Karen aka sewsirius

I hate how the word “endorse” is so missused here in the Middle East. Westerners would know this word as meaning you agree with what is being said and put your “stamp” of approval on it, but here it is used, instead of the simpler, and in my opinion more accurate description, hand-over. Why are we “endorsing” patients? What does this mean? What you’re really doing is handing over this patient’s care from you to me. Even our electronic documentation, thank God, doesn’t use this word! Unfortunately a lot of ESL individuals feel they have to use a long word, no matter whether it’s right or wrong to make up for the fact English isn’t their first language, when in reality using short clear words have more impact. It is worth noting that since arriving here nearly 5 years ago I’ve had to remove most words from my everyday vocabulary that were three or more syllables because people here just didn’t understand them! One syllable is usually best!

Jason Gracia

This was my favorite video, by far. As a writer, editor, and Zinsser deciple, I am forever weeding out the ten-dollar words my clients cram into every other sentence. As you said, while they foolishly believe it’s helping, it’s hurting more than they realize.

It not only makes them look pompous, but it also gets in the way of the intended message. Short words help us get to the heart of things; they let us see and hear and feel what’s being written. Long Latin words only clutter and confuse. They are vague concepts relied on by the lazy.

As Zinsser explains…

“The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

“How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.””

Lincoln, E.B. White, Hemmingway, the authors of the Bible…true masters of writing like these and so many more connect with us through words and sentences that are short, precise, and powerful.

It’s easy to be longwinded; a skilled writer knows how to say more with less.

Jayne

“Utilize” popped into my head before I even finished reading your headline!

In my experience, “synergy” is corporate speak for “we’re going to f*** you over with even more unpaid hours.” I think I’d have felt better about it if they’d just said it plainly, LOL.

I don’t know if you can call this a big word, but one of my pet peeve made-up words is “reoccur” in all its forms (reoccurrence, reoccurring, etc.). It’s just recur (and recurrent, etc.)!!! Argh!

Tova

That’s fascinating that research studies proved that! It was my University education 10 years ago that indoctrinated (that’s a big word lol) to use Big Words. It’s taken 10 years to undo that and remind myself – keep it simple

Great Post Derek! 🙂

Charlene

I absolutely love the English language and adore words that have a long flow to them…

The real – and sad – truth here is that the academic has to sort of ‘ dumb himself down’ and confine himself to a tiny vocabulary when speaking to his audience…

Diane

Derek, a big fan of your style of writing and content. Write from the heart and keep it simple. Impress by the quality of words not the depth of your vocabulary.

Charlene

That’s mostly because the a person these days is not very academic. There’s nothing wrong with using so-called big words in the right crowd. ‘Utilize’ is not a big word…

Frank Viola

Perhaps one of the most loquacious videos I’ve ever consumed. Evah. To wit, a colossal and ostentatious vocabulary is not only precocious (and precarious), but at bottom, it betrays a commodious bundle of casuistry peppered with sophistry, blended with a dash of supercilious hokum and hubris.

In other words, I agree wit you, yo.

Frankie V.

Ann

Nice job. I guess the big word is the right word if you are using it with the right audience. I use everyday words myself because I want to be understood.

Ron Lum

Okay, cool study, but I think you might be reaching with your headline.

1. Big words can make you look stupid, but only if you don’t use them properly (i.e. you’re a high school student writing an essay and wanting to impress your teacher, so you use thesaurus.com)

2. Synergy is not a big word. It’s more of an alternative, pop word to describe things that complement each other well.

3. A lot of salesmen, politicians, and elitist people use big words to appear smarter, more educated, more authoritative. Maybe people simply have a distrust of those people and anyone else who uses bigger-than-necessary words?

Just some thoughts I had when watching this video.

    Charlene

    Could it also be that politicians and elitists vocabulary is larger than your average person, you think?….

Bree

Maybe this is why the SAT’s finally re-writing and re-structuring its content (not to mention the fact that more people preferred and took the ACT over the SAT last year).

Amy

Using nouns as verbs (impact, dialog, etc.) aggravate me (make me mad?)

Nichole

Irregardless… Not even a real word but hear it a lot!

AJ & Serenity Services

This actually reminds me of something I’ve learned from a book I’m reading (“Web Copy That Sells” by Maria Veloso). When it comes to online copywriting – writing in such a way to get people to buy or take some other specific action – you want to avoid using big words or trying to impress your audience with your big vocabulary.

For instance, instead of using the word “accolade” use “applause.” Instead of “obstinate” use “stubborn.” Instead of “diminutive” use “small.” Instead of “astute” use “smart.”

I could go on and on, but the point is that less is more. If you’re going to use words that will make your audience turn to a dictionary (or to Google) then you just might lose them.

Ross R. Mason

I was just thinking about this today as I was creating a new Pinterest board… at first, I named it “typography” (which is one such big word used a lot these days…)

Instead, I named it “words”.

Seems like that might fit this list. Hope it helps.

John V

Is it just me or did you find the researcher’s own title somewhat ironic?

“Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity”

How bout… “Using GED level words for no good reason”

    James

    The researcher’s title is intentionally wry :¬)
    The first half verbose; the second half is the mirror of the first made simpler.

Star Khechara

I used to work in science and OMG didn’t we all love the big words and complex phrasing. We used to laugh that science research must be written in a deliberately obtuse way to confuse the laity. “inverse positive correlation ” instead of “nah, its not the cause” was a phrase I found particularly funny. These days I tries to speak more normal innit *spoken with a Cornish accent*

Sally

I wrote contracts for several years and taking over for someone who liked to use big words was a nightmare. Since I also had to execute the contracts, I cannot tell you how much time I spent trying to figure out what the heck we had even promised through the contract.

I started writing the contracts more clear and concise, avoiding legal jargon that no one understood and replacing it with basic language so everyone could understand it perfectly.

A few choice words I could do without hearing are: echelon, vernacular and accoutrements (although I couldn’t tell you what to replace the last one with and the guy faked a fancy face when he said it to emphasize his fanciness when saying it so it was funny).

I had a coworker say we were going to “embargo” on a fun journey and mention how great it was that her husband had “feld (felled?)” the laundry last night. She’s full of fun big words! 🙂

Dave Gardner

Love it! Rudolf Flesch’s book, “The Art of Plain Talk” and “The Art of Readable Writing” cover this topic well. Too many folks get out of college under the theory that “If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (quote attributed to W.C. Fields). When you start hitting words you don’t understand … wonder what kind of stuff the speaker/writer is trying to pull on you. This applies particularly to advertisers, politicians, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. One of my websites deals with this issue and provides resources to help you avoid this in your own writing and speaking. (I’m passing this site and your discussion to a bunch of buddies who need to know this!) Thanks for a good lesson!

I. Caldwell

Oh! No wonder!

Sid Kassidy

Love this. Makes me feel better!

Brian Dempsey

I appreciate the 3rd study you referenced the most because it seemed to the one that had the best 1 to 1 correlation with “big words.” There are other factors that can make a paper or translation more “complex” other than the length of words: punctuation, number of words per sentence, average number of syllables per word / sentence, etc. Do you know if the other two studies focused on these factors as well, or are you assuming that “complex” in these studies referred only to length of words?

Nyk Danu

Love this Sharing!

Melissa Breau (@MelissaBreau)

The word I wish people would stop using? Innovative. Just say “new.”

As a journalist, I can’t tell you the number of times people would stick the word “innovative” into a press release when really they just meant it was “new.”

And no, the big word did not help them get press coverage.

    Penni

    Actually, innovative is not *just* new, it’s groundbreaking… though that may not have been applicable either 🙂

    It seems the problem is not just using big words or not, but substituting smaller and/or bigger words that don’t mean exactly the same thing.

    This results in a massive skewing of language which ensures that the meaning of what we say is lost, diluted and probably, in a vast number of instances, mutated beyond recognition.

    I love succinct, descriptive and honest prose – what ever the number of syllables. I devoutly hope that that never dries up and vanishes – we would lose the finer nuances of language and relating and that would be a sad loss indeed.

Rhysa of the Forest

Oh dear, I fear for the dumbing down of modern society. Big, precise words do hit the spot and can convey the author’s more exact meaning, jmho. Big words often have subtle implications that are so nice to not miss.

But of course, there are always those superlative wordsmiths who take a few, simple succinct words and express a WORLD with them. Still, I do love big words when they are used with pinpoint accuracy. And oftentimes, a big word can replace a hundred little words. Brevity being the key to wit, and so much else of course.

Perhaps modern society may soon choose to live on 140 texted characters, no more, shortcutted as possible, only expletives, icons and smilies used to express every emotion. In reading The Great Books, one can see how much depth of communication and thought we miss in this modern era. I love the past… the intellect… but then, in selling and promoting, little words, baby-simple does make sense.

As modern serfs, we have little time for depth-filled conversing. Ah well!
: )

    mark

    I think most of you are somehow sort of missing the point, except Rhysa of the Forest, whose post I thought was spot on.

    We are supposed to reach ever higher, not lower..Sure, dumbing down your writing to the lowest common denominator is a great tactic if you’re trying to sell something, or advertise something, or even in the broader sense of simply trying to reach and communicate with as many people as possible.

    But I’m not a salesman. I’m not in advertising. I’m not trying to reach a broad audience. I am, however, a philosopher, as I believe everyone should be, to one extent or another. and in that context, my only goal is to use language to express myself. not on a superficial level..no, I mean really, really express myself.

    You can’t really express complex emotions and situations with a 5th grade level of comprehension. I dare say you can never truly communicate an idea, or especially an emotion, entirely in its original form.

    I don’t care if someone can’t understand me when I talk, or write. That means they don’t need to be listening, and my message is quite simply not for them. I have no interest in dumbing down for them.

    Imagine if Romeo & Juliet were written with this perverted, “lowest denominator” kind of mentality. Certainly, it would probably be far more popular at the time it was written, simply because most people would be able to better understand it, even if it’s a gray shade of its original self.

    But it would certainly no longer be a masterpiece.

    In many ways, using complex language is a way to ‘filter out’ less capable people from being able to grasp your writing. Lawmakers do this on purpose, and it works swimmingly for them.

    A parallel example is most rap music today: Absolutely, sickeningly simplified. Because the moguls of these record labels understand quite well that complex lyricists don’t sell nearly as well as hyper-simplified, ghetto, hoodrat-speakers. Does this somehow make the dumbed down language ‘better?’ Certainly not.

    Charlene

    Couldn’t put it better myself:)

    Brian Dempsey

    “I fear for the dumbing down of modern society.” – Indeed!

    There is the danger of catering to the least common denominator, of lowering the intellectual bar so low, that we’re barely capable of a fraction of the expression that was common in the recent past. One can accused of snobbery or elitism by consistently typing Facebook updates using correct punctuation or knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its.”

    Certainly there can be a showy, snobbish, off-putting air from someone who uses “big words” to flaunt his (supposed) knowledge, but as you pointed out, there are times when the right word is a “big word.”

javi

utilize.

STOP SAYING UTILIZE PLEASE.
just say ‘use’, idiot.

Brock

Great video! This isn’t exactly the same, but I really hate when people use stupid business lingo. For example…

“Holding Pattern” – As in “we’re sort of in a holding pattern right now…”. What someone means when they say this is that something is on hold, or stopped, or paused. Basically, that no work is being done, or they’re waiting on something. Of course, they could never put it so simply, using simple human language. Instead, they have to make it sound official by saying that they’re “in a holding pattern”, as if they were navigating a packed Boeing 747 across a crowded tarmac. I hate this.

“Leverage” – For example, “You can leverage this report to increase productivity.” What am I, a damn pulley? I can’t leverage anything. I can read it. I can even use it…but I’m not going to leverage it. I’m not going to “leverage” your report to pry open a car door or make a tackle. You don’t sound smart, you sound like a jerk. Leverage that.

“Ping” – Hey, why don’t you ping him when you get a chance, okay? No. I’m not a freaking computer. I don’t have an IP address. You don’t “ping” people…you talk to them. You send them emails or call them, but you don’t ping them.

“Cadence” – This is one of my favorites. “We like to establish a regular cadence with our clients.” Oh, do you? Do you like to establish “a sequence of notes or chords comprising the close of a musical phrase” with your clients? What are you, a freaking composer? Because they’re the only people establishing cadences.

“Putting Out Fires” – As in, “Sorry I didn’t get back to you, I’ve been putting out fires all day.” or “I’m going to have to cancel today, got some fires to put out.”

Oh yeah? Got some fires to put out, huh?

Liar!

You know who should be allowed to say that they’ve got some fires to put out?

Firefighters, that’s who.

You know who shouldn’t be?

Everyone else.

Because you know what? Making sure a deliverable isn’t late is NOT putting out a fire. Getting a PowerPoint presentation ready for your boss is not the same as trying against all odds to defeat nature’s most destructive force, possibly saving lives and risking your own in the process. I bet you’ve never put out a fire in your life. Certainly not in your cubicle.

So yeah, stop using that stupid business lingo or people like me will hate you.

-Brock

    Shaun

    Brock, your comment made me laugh!

    Every example you gave involved imagery and metaphor. What is wrong with that? Humans think in metaphor. Metaphor and imagery adds extra meaning and nuance. And they’re a short cut. Would you prefer someone ‘fighting fires’ to instead describe to you the literal detail of the 16 different urgent, reactive and difficult tasks they have to complete?

    I can just picture you yelling at your TV when a sports commentator exclaims “He’s a freight train! He can’t be stopped!” You: “No! He is NOT a train! A train is a machine! He is a human! And he can be stopped. Stop lying about the laws of physics!”

    Those with conditions such as autism are only able to use language literally. Otherwise metaphor and imagery are effective ways to communicate. Even in business.

Milos

Utilize, a big word? Really?

While I agree that interactions should be as simple and as natural as possible, the data you have referenced in the video seems a bit incomplete and it could be interpreted in various ways.

How do we know that people who have read the essays have assumed that the authors are more or less intelligent? Why did they assume this? Where they asked to consider this prior to reading the essays and did that establish a selection bias? Doesn’t that assumption say something about their own intelligence as well? See where I’m going with this? 😉

I agree with simplicity, honesty and cutting the BS out all the time, but the supporting argument is a bit, well, simple. 🙂

Chad

Great video Derek. I’ll share what I also tweeted – The problem goes beyond “big” words. I’ve been in software development for 12 years. Tech people (developers, project managers, etc.) are terrible about piling up buzz words and tech lingo. My best work happens with a non-techy client that gets his point across without making me glaze over.

Kat

Nothing pisses me off more than using big words or terminology that only those in your field would know. That and acronyms that are not common knowledge. First thing that pops in my head is, “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”, or “yeah I may understand what you are saying but guess what, I HATE YOU”.

I always approach things as I’m explaining to someone who knows NOTHING about what I’m talking about. I try to use the easiest words possible to get them to know exactly what I want them to know and keep their attention.

Abbey

Love this! You can tell a great writer from someone who thinks they’re a great writer by this very factor. Great writers don’t have to show off their vocabulary. The point of writing to communicate ideas effectively — not to show off your own intelligence (or apparently, lack of).

I saw this the other day, the opening few seconds are exactly what you are talking about, but the whole video is worth a watch.

http://mashable.com/2014/03/25/generic-brand-ad/?utm_cid=mash-com-Tw-main-link

Angel True

Just yesterday I saw my ISP post a message about the difference between IMAP and POP email service. They gave a lengthy response that included port numbers, security information, and other technical notes. Then they gave a “simple explanation” that was two sentences long and still confusing.

All they needed to do was say “IMAP leaves your messages on our servers, while POP downloads and deletes it from the server.”

I see everyone trying to “sound smarter” by giving detailed answers rather than simplify it so your audience can understand the critical components.

Complicated answers are my pet-peeve!

Lauren

My problem isn’t so much big words, but the misuse of “big” words. One in particular really bugs me. Infamous. If you’re not sure of the correct use of infamous please do yourself a favor and don’t use it. So yes, if you say “the infamous Ghandi” people will think you’re stupid.

Marvin

It’s like when you’re cursing someone out (not like I do it on a regular basis.) If you use trendy swear words or a different language that only a select few in the group know, it will have a lesser effect than if you told them straight in a way you can all understand. Great video man.

Joanna

I have a problem with word “spirituality”. I want to write about it, i want to present myself as a spiritual coach, but I realize what idea may i convey with it, while in fact i want it to be a down to earth , daily, practical, selfish thing. Still didn’t find anything to replace it…

Dawn B. Dwyer

Great Video Derek! You’ve shared this at a fantastic time for me. I am in the process of writing my first book and with it comes all that self-doubt. Especially the doubt, around my ability to write with big words. I am so glad to hear that big words are not necessary. I remember a WORD.doc calculating that I wrote at a 4th grade level many years ago and that always stuck in my head making me feel inept. (oops is that a BIG WORD? Nah, it is only 5 letters.)

John

As a friend put it to me once, a good teacher is able to make the complex simple. That’s a good approach to take when we’re writing for others. While simple is good, we don’t want to insult our audience’s intelligence either. Simple must go hand in hand with clarity.

Daniel

One of my favorite posts you’ve done recently. Very clever.

Suzi

OMG I love this. As an attorney, I deal with having to listen to this every. freakin’. day. With that said, I work SUPER hard to try to take complex words and issues and make them simple for my clients. This is how I learned the law myself. I HAD to take complex things and make it simple so I could actually understand it! Okay, a few faves:
“is applicable to” – just say “applies”
“afforded an opportunity” – just say “allowed”
“eschew” – just say “shun”
“fallacious” – just say “wrong”

Patty Ann

Derek, your fact finding is correct. I use to write training for the top high tech orgs. The industry standard is/was to write content to an eight grade reading level. Short sentences. Short words. Easy to understand.

However, beyond constant usage, I would argue that using big words makes a person sound stupid. Sometimes big words fit the occasion, or there is no appropriate substitute.

BTW, what the heck does ‘Freckless’ mean? Never heard of this one . . . I must be out of touch!

jordan f

This is discombobulating to me.

Actually http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

is a smoking little app you can place copy into and it will help you accomplish what you advocate, no advise, no talk about…here

    Mike Power

    I agree. Hemingway is a very useful tool. I highly recommend it.

Julie

I’m one of those “grammar Nazi’s” people make Facebook quizzes about, yet I still hate when people use big words just to use them. The other day, someone emailed me about a piece of art in an ad (I’m a designer), and used the word “askance” to describe how he wanted it placed. Even I had to look it up.

Definition: with an attitude or look of suspicion or disapproval.
What he meant: angled.

Just say angled. Or at the very least, use the big word correctly.

When’s the last time you saw a sign with an attitude?

    SinClair MacAnann

    Askance is a great word when used in the right context. Unfortunately, the person in question misused it – he almost certainly meant to use the word ‘askew’.

Lee Warren

Another favorite is when people say “irregardless,” when they really mean ‘regardless.’

    Julie

    This drives me crazy as well.

Christina

I’d love to have a link to the source study to review it. Your summary leaves me wondering if it’s not necessarily about using *big* words, but perhaps about using jargon or larger words when a simpler one *has the same meaning* and would actually do as well.

Great writing tends to be elegant. Elegance exists only with simplicity and clarity. Jargon, or using clunky syntax, takes away from that. Utilize is a perfect example – “use” is more elegant, because it is shorter, simpler, and in most cases means exactly the same thing.

There are many larger words that convey an idea precisely, when a small word, or even a string of them together, simply will not have the same meaning.

I would like to see whether the study controlled for these types of variables that have a huge impact on how people perceive language and its user.. or if it was limited simply to the letter-count without considering context and placement.

    Derek Halpern

    There’s a footnote at the bottom with an APA citation.

      Christina

      Oh, sweet, I missed that – checking it out now. Love, love, LOVE that you use real research for your posts. Thanks!

Steve Sowinski

Derek,
Cool video. I’m in the arts and music, and for me, the word is “organic”. Every time I hear it, I think produce at Whole Foods. “Wow, you do your work without pesticides and harmful chemicals!” Really, what does it mean?
If “organic” means real, true, authentic, then use those words instead. Of course, this is all organically speaking.

Take care

Steve S.

    Joanna

    Thanks for explanation i didn’t know what it means in music 🙂

Katie Fitzgerald

I’m astounded that people think using big words makes you look stupid? Maybe it’s more a matter or trying to use big words to make yourself look smart, which gives off a bad vibe. Regardless, I absolutely agree that the goal is to communicate well and write to your audience.

What does, and definitely makes someone look stupid, is using words incorrectly or pronouncing them incorrectly, and I’m not talking regional accents. “Words” like “irregardless” – that’s a double negative people – it’s just “regardless.” Or “fustrate” instead of “fRustrate.”

SinClair MacAnann

Derek, I enjoy your videos, but this one almost made me cry. It appears I must alter the way I communicate both in the written and spoken word – and that just seems false! (Previously I would have written disingenuous but eschewed the idea for simplicity’s sake, haha) I do understand ‘plain and simple’ is considered best these days, but lament the rarity of an elegantly turned phrase, or the use of more obscure words lending richer meaning and texture to our language. I take your point, however, and will tuck your advice away for future reference – though I can’t help feeling that the general fervour for basic uniformity has more to do with an inverse snobbery born of a fear that those who wield the pen more deftly than the average might not only be intellectually superior but an elitist bunch of horrors, to boot! I blame the Bond films and the Marquis de Sade, personally 😉

    Joanna

    I suppose it depends where we write , for whom, with what purpose. Daily blogs like this intended for daily use, get the info, take it , use it – simple is better. But when i buy a beautiful book, describing in a poetic way the nature of the sky, i want to feel enchanted and it won’t happen if it’s all written in plain language :). Sorry i put commas in wrong places.

      SinClair MacAnann

      Precisely, Joanna – it’s all in the context!

Jessica

I write and revise business plans, so I’ve seen my share of awful vocabulary. “Leverage”, “Architect a Solution” and “Take it to the Next Level” are some of my most loathed words and phrases.

It’s funny though, sometimes clients critique the language in my business plans, calling it too simplistic! They want to see more business jargon, because they think that’s what a business plan is supposed to contain. I actually have to educate them about the value of clarity and conciseness when a lender or investor is reviewing their plan.

Mike

While I agree that inside jargon can confuse those who are not in the same industry, I find using big words in the proper context and situation makes one sound educated. By stating that big words make you sound stupid, you are assuring people that it is ok to sound like Honey Boo-Boo and the hundreds of other people on tv nowadays that are truly dumbing down today’s society.

sylvia

i completely agree!
i love when people even sound like they are using the word of the day on their “word of the day” calendar. lol

Liz Hancock

For me, if it comes across as genuine speech then I’m fine with big words. You typically know who tends to speak/write consistently on that level as opposed to people that use language awkwardly.

Always consider the source! 🙂

Joel

very true…def agree !!!

Lorraine Carey

Great Video! As an author and children’s reading specialist, I know clarity in context is very important for the reader, especially when writing for children.

Paul Heenan

This is preposterous, Kidding!!

Not only do big words make you look stupid, it potentially makes others you are speaking to feel less sophisicated thus shutting down the conversation in their head and not remebering a single thing you just said.

Letitia

I find a lot of people *try * to use big words when they are being condescending. Maybe that’s another reason why people don’t like them?

Mark

Reminds me of this cartoon: http://www.snotm.com/2010/11/54.html?m=1

Sarah Jordan

So synergistic management solutions is not good? 😉 You’re so right, as usual Derek. I learned this in Cashvertising too. Simple is always better. Great video!

Loz James

Tremendously informative weblog communication Derek

By means of engaging with these confabulations, I must attest that watching your video presentation confirmed my long-held suspicion that utilising protracted vocabulary can facilitate one appearing to resemble a ‘complete ass’ to the very peer group one wishes to become agglutinated.

One can only respond to your impressive investigation and subsequent meritorious publication, by expressing an almost unfettered level of appreciativeness.

My warmest salutations,

Loz

Brandon

It is interesting to consider this, in my Tests and Measures class (is it less pompous to say that vs. Psychometrics?) I was taught that the average american at least, has a 5th grade reading level.

    Rita Mailheau

    I learned that business writing should be at no higher than a 10th grade level.

Richard

Nothwithstanding is the best dumb big word. Great vid Derek, I shared this with my team.

Ian

Hey Derek,

Just subscribed to your newsletter. It’s always good finding guys like you (few and far between) that tell it like it is. There’s proper loads of rubbish out there, so when I do find someone cool it makes the endless clicking and searching worth it.

Have you heard of Drayton Bird? He tells it like it is without the BS and also extols the virtues of simplistic verbalisation. 😉

Check him out at askdrayton.com he’s been in the game years and says although technology changes, human nature never does. So if you get the basics right everything else should follow.

Anyways, good stuff and I’m looking forward to watching and reading through everything. Thanks.

Timothy

Let’s look at some synonyms for “use” as a verb and “use” as a noun.

Verb: “Utilize” does have a special use… but most of the time it’s misused, which makes the person look even more stupid to people who DO know what it means.

Noun: “Usage” is a big pet peeve of mine. There is almost never a reason to use the word “usage” instead of just “use”.

The purpose of selecting your vocabulary should be to make the message clearer and more effective, not loftier and more confusing.

Stop using obscure words for the sake of using obscure words.

James

Hi Derek.
I’ve been bug-beared by this for ages.
Thanks for sourcing the studies.
I didn’t come away with quite the same conclusions you did.
Best summed up in the paper’s concluding discussion…
“Instead, the effect seems to be constrained by the manner in which fluency is processed; when there is no obvious source of fluency (Experiment 4) then intelligence judgements are lowered, but in the presence of an obvious source of fluency (Experiment 5) intelligence judgements
increase.”
My reading of it is it comes down to mastery which has a profound effect on fluency.
e.g. also from Princeton Paper…
“Indeed, there is some evidence that complex vocabulary can be indicative of a more intelligent author.”
Living in London, I think perception and reception have as much has to do with people appearing false or putting on airs. Namely, if the right word comes to you as easily as breathing, i.e. no need to reach for the thesaurus, and it neatly concisely expresses the idea, folks here at least admire the facility with the language.
Which brings up the second point.
Who is the audience. In the studies they were Stanford University undergraduates. While fascinating, this is a very rare sample indeed vs. a cross-section of the public, including U.S. and international.
We all must remain vigilant of reconfirmation bias my friend :¬)
Thank you for sharing. Wonderful food for thought.

Pamela

The data may be — as you say — in, but data can never be better than the design of the study in which the data were collected. Would you share the citations so we can evaluate the research ourselves?

    Derek Halpern

    At the bottom of every blog post, there is a footnote section. I cite the study in APA format.

      Rebecca

      Got to laugh at the title of that research! 🙂

      The two words that I am guilty of using and will now replace: efficient and effective. Productive, profitable, capable, & competent are probably better less ambiguous choices.

      Open to other suggestions!

Rita Mailheau

Derek,
I agree with you that using plain language is best for Internet audiences. I also think that using BIG words to seem smart is phony. But P L E A S E don’t eliminate them altogether. They’re part of us. We construct our thoughts out of these building blocks.

Love your insight. You’re a welcome blast of ozone!

Reinhardt

Makes sense. Brings me back to the old K.I.S.S principle. “Keep It Simple Stupid!”

Cheers

Bryan Toder

Ha. I actually call this “People’s Court Speech”!

Ever watch “The People’s Court” or “Judge Judy”? (I watch it for the entertainment of watching stupidity in action.)

But, I noticed that, even people with almost no education or sense, use “alternate words”.

Instead of saying, “He got out of his car and started fighting!”, they say something like, “The Defendant then exited his vehicle and began an altercation!”

I mean, who talks like that?!

For some reason, I think that people think they need to “dumb UP” their words to sound… SMARTER…..??!

Redonculous, I exclaim!

Matt Scott

Thanks for confirming one of my basic gut instincts – I’ve always thought that using too many words to explain something meant that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Mark Twain preceded all this research by a few years:

“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same.”

PS. The title of the research article is epic.

Óscar

In spanish: “Sinergia” “eficaz y eficiente” (together) “cartera de clientes”
“Misión y visión” “externalidades” “se cayó el sistema”

Ross O'Lochlainn

Fantastic. Short and sweet video.

The best part is this delivers ammo to those of us who regularly argue with others about using unnecessary complicated language.

Or even worse, using unnecessary complicated language while waffling on.

It takes more effort to write clearly and concisely, in plain English.

As Blain Pascal said,

“Please forgive the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

Penny Beale

Hi Derek, nice post. I help people get their best body ever and a lot of that time is spent in a gym. Hearing other coaches explaining such things to their clients like why their butt muscles aren’t switching on properly with cringe worthy phrases like this one; ‘You’re missing mobility in the saggittal plane, which is coming from a lack of adduction at the articulation of the femur and pelvis.’

    Iain Gray

    I prefer it when coaches speak to me like that, because I understand anatomy and physiology, and it tells me that they do as well. I’m probably unusual in that though, so as ever, it depends on your audience.

Torrie Pattillo

I’ve witnessed 2 people saying/writing on social media “loquacious”. I know what the word means, but it’s still obnoxious! Especially given one of the conversations: “my daughter has been exceptionally loquacious this week. Is it in the air?” Really dude? She’s 5!!! Just say she’s been blabbering all week! Or extra chatty!

    Derek Halpern

    im surprised people can even spell that word on social media. They can’t even spell “you” right. They use “u”

Cheri

Haha THANK YOU for making this video.

Interestingly enough, when I went to NYU, we all delighted in getting to use our big vocabularies with each other, because it was literally the only place it was really acceptable. Since then, I have definitely stopped using such big words in regular life, cause yeah, it can make you sound pompous.

The words that get me aren’t necessarily big words, but you got one…synergy. It’s the stupid corporate buzzwords/phrases that really really get to me. I hear them so much when dealing with PR agencies, and I can tell exactly what it must be like to work there when I hear them being used in emails, etc. Ha. Those words must die.

Birds eye view
Circle back around
Synergy
So many others, I don’t even want to think about it anymore!!! Lol.

Question though, Derek. Can you share any insight on where you get your great studies that you reference? Are there good email lists that we could get on if we’re interested in the same types of research? Thanks again.

    Iain Gray

    Synergy is a very fine word. However it has no real meaning outside of biology or systematics.

    Derek Halpern

    It really just comes from reading. I read a lot.

      Stacie Walker

      I can’t get enough of reading. For me, it’s the best way to learn along with life experiences. Thanks Derek for taking a break from speaking engagements to spend more time with us:)

Vanessa

Right, this must be why people hate me hahaha. Im (notorious) for using <big words. I will attempt to layman speak in the future.

Darice

‘Utilize’ isn’t really a big word, is it? I spent the entire video pondering that question…and I’m guessing that wasn’t your intent.

Personally, I’m all for an honest use of language.

If I meet someone in person and they speak like an ‘Average Joe/Jane’ I’ll be put off if their website / blog / sales sheets sound like the Constitution. If, however, they use large words in regular conversation (correctly!), but use a dumbed-down version to sell I’d be equally put off.

Authenticity is more important to me as a consumer and a business owner.

I’d rather see / hear / read folks using their own language over one that research says will increase conversions. Especially since I have used a few 9+ letter words here – none of which I consider ‘big,’ and as Mr. T says ‘I pity the fool’ who does.

Language is a beautiful and complex thing…let’s not ruin it.

    Charlene

    I totally agree with you!

    Derek Halpern

    I’m a big fan of using the right word when necessary. That’s why I own a traditional desktop thesaurus.

    The specific thesaurus I bought is the Oxford American “Writer’s Thesaurus.” Why did I pick this one?

    Because it featured a quote from David Foster Wallace on the rear cover. Here’s a picture of that quote:

    And that quote sums up everything I would say about the word utilize 😉

      claire stone

      I love how you utilized a photograph to help us visualize your meaning.

      Donia

      My question to Derek is this: could it be that the reason people “hate you” when you use big words is because it makes *them feel* stupid (rather than your conclusion that it makes the person using them look stupid – assuming that they’ve used the “big word” perfectly)?

      I’m not arguing with the fact that it’s stupid to use big words simply to impress or even intimidate your audience, but some of the conclusions you drew from that research seemed… oversimplified.

      And I agree, Darice and Mike — to *always* use a shorter word simply because it’s shorter (rather than being precise, yet concise with language *and* being aware of your audience) would be a shame for the evolution of language… but that’s where we’re headed, it seems.

        Jodi

        I agree with you completely! It is a waste of beautiful language to “dumb down” our speech because it may cause others feelings of insecurity. I geniunely appreciate beautiful, uncommon words and use them to express myself. Learning (and using!) new words is one of my favorite things in life. I do not wish to make anyone feel bad or inferior. I just love words. I witness people using small words incorrectly as often as “big” words. So by this logic, these people shouldn’t be allowed to speak at all. Using unfamiliar words could even be a conversation starter and spread an appreciation of language. That’s a beautiful concept.

      Connie Habash

      I have to agree with Darice here, in that authenticity is what I think sells more than anything else (although I agree about utilize, Derek, in most cases).

      A lot of it depends on what it is that you are selling, or what your passion is. In my case, as a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, and yoga teacher, I happen to use certain words a lot, just because they really speak to me. Like the word cultivate. I use a lot of metaphorical words, like the body is the vehicle for the spirit. Car just wouldn’t work (now that really would sound stupid!).

      So I think it has to do with who your audience is, what you are offering, and being authentic to who you are.

        Charlene

        Agree completely!

        Darice

        Connie – you had me at cultivate! 😉

        You’re right, audience is such an important factor in this discussion. So glad you mention ‘vehicle’…one of my favorite uses (!) for that word.

      Mike Power

      I agree that in most cases the word “use” is sufficient. To be fair, “utilize” does have a specific meaning different from “use”. I use a wire coat hanger to hang my shirt but if the aerial on my car breaks I can “utilize” a wire coat hanger as a temporary replacement. The use here indicates that I am making use of something not originally intended for the job. But, yes, I could just “use” a coat hanger. :))

        Darice

        I think that’s why it bothers me: it’s “sufficient…” Is that all we’re after?

        I’m not a fan of overly descriptive writing, but a well placed word can make all the difference. To say that utilize is always a puff-word is, well, stupid.

        Thankfully “stupid” is subjective. 😉

      Darice

      Ha! Interesting take. I don’t agree, but I appreciate the message. 🙂

Rivka Kawano

Language is amazing! This is really interesting research.

I think it really boils down to being real and not making people work to understand you.

And of course if you are listening more than you are talking you will use fewer big words by default. And be able to mimic the preferred language the person you are speaking with. 🙂

    Karen Caswell

    Rivka’s comments say it best! Word choice is all about communicating. People don’t care so much what you know (trying to impress with $5 words), they want to know that you care.

Dave Linabury

Actually, there’s a short word I hate that is used in marketing where the big word is actually more understandable. Marketers call presentations “decks”. Whenever clients hear deck, they expect a bunch of cards or a box of something. But I digress.

Here’s the big words I hate:
extrapolate
intrinsic
penultimate (mainly because it’s misused)
ontological
pedagogy

    Charlene

    Seriously? These are not big words….

    Aaron Doud

    The “decks” thing is another example of the same thing. Jargon is the flipside to “big words”.

    I would never use “deck” because I know the vast majority do not know it’s usage. Classic Sales Professional problem is using jargon when selling.

    It’s why people selling SEO services have so many problems. Their prospects don’t want SEO. Many of them don’t even know what SEO means. So you have to sell them using terms they understand…. more clients, more leads, help you get found online, etc etc.

    Rita Mailheau

    I don’t only hate the word “pedagogy.” I also hate what it represents.

      Charlene

      Why? ‘Pedagogy’ just means teaching….

        Iain Gray

        No it doesn’t mean teaching. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching, i.e. teaching as an academic field. It is to teaching what medical science is to medicine.

        People who use it as a synonym for teaching have fallen into the trap of using a big word when a small one will do, and ending up misusing it.

Lauri Wakefield

This is so funny! I took an English Vocabulary test the other day, and I thought it would just be about language usage. Most of it was about synonyms, and most of the words were “big” words I’ve never heard anyone use. That’s kind of out of touch. If I was talking to someone and slipped in a few of those words, they’d probably look at me like I was stupid. 🙂

    Derek Halpern

    That’s the point.

Shaleen Sharma

Also, when you are talking to somebody you really want them to understand you and not look at you all confused. But hey! Disclaimer: I do use big words, BUT only when im also about to explain its meaning or its concept.

Btw check this out: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis .. haha.. the longest word in the Oxford Dictionary (Supposed to be a lung ailment)

    Lee Warren

    My favorite? ‘Visualize.’

    Doctors say it all the time when they simply mean ‘see.’ As in, “I was able to visualize the tumor.”

    Most of the time, it makes them sound like an idiot because to visualize something means to see it in your mind’s eye, not with your actual eyes. You ‘see’ things with your real eyes. Ha!

    Outstanding, phenomenal presentation on the dys-utility of excessive loquacity, Master Halpern!

    Dave Linabury

    I had to learn that word in 10th grade for English. Yes, it means Black Lung (a miner’s disease).

      Shaleen Sharma

      I remember learning it in 7th grade for my GK test. 🙂

Tanya Malott

Did you ever used to watch “In Living Color”? Your post made me think of this: http://www.hulu.com/watch/7321#i0,p6,d1

    Derek Halpern

    LOVE THIS

Mike Power

There are so many words and phrases I dislike (when used outside specialist writing). Parameter. Quantum. Paradigm. Plethora. Decimate, oh, the list goes on…

Writing in a clear, simple way is much more difficult than churning out overblown, complex content and. I have always looked to the great George Orwell for my inspiration. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm
Probably even more relevant now than it was in 1946.

    James

    Thanks for sharing this Mike… worthy… apropos (heh)… enjoyed.
    🙂

      James

      For all prone to TL;DR…
      …one pearl amongst many from Mike’s Orwellian post:

      “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
      1. What am I trying to say?
      2. What words will express it?
      3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
      4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

      And he will probably ask himself two more:
      1. Could I put it more shortly?
      2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

      But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”

      Thanks again to Derek for hosting the conversation and Mike for such a wonderful share.

Claire Mora

Hi Derek,
Yes, that is true, but in something like computer programming some long words are the only way to refer to certain triggers as another words wouldn’t have the same effect on the system. Concatenate being one of them, though I did see a clear shortening of that word used on twitter concat’ing.
Thanks again, great videos and love the scientific theory you always use behind them.
Claire

    Jim Wang

    I think there’s a difference between jargon and just using bigger $5 words. Concatenate means a very specific thing, and is also a command, and using shorter words in its place is actually detrimental because those shorter words also mean specific things.

      Carla

      There is something to be said for using words you know and you’re comfortable with. It’s much more authentic than “dumbing” something down for the sake of selling someone.

      Jargon is awful. Nuanced and precise words are gold.

        Meagan

        the other day I was doing an interview for a local newstation, when people asked what it was about I could have simply said ‘oh, I repurpose stuff and they want to come out and talk to me about it’ but instead (and I did it specifically because I knew my friends would find the humor in it) I said it was a story on decreasing waste production in our landfills or something similar to that, in short, I keep trash out of the landfills by re-purposing items that others might be throwing away and making them useful again (ok, so that isn’t all that short)

    Derek Halpern

    You’re right. Sometimes the big word is the only option. At which point, you should use that word because you need the right word.

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