Short words are best

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that short words are best. Now we have proof. The March 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly cited a piece of research that shows that besides clouding the meaning, the use of long words actually makes the reader think the author is stupid. The title of the research illustrates the problem eloquently:

“Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”

I love it when scientists have a sense of humour. Good for you Daniel M. Oppenheimer.

When I wrote about readability in an earlier post, I listed some formulas that could be used to test how readable a piece of text is. All of them take account of word length.

…write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent…

What Oppenheimer did was to get seventy-one Stanford undergraduates to evaluate different writing samples. He created a “highly complex” version of each original text by replacing each noun, verb and adjective in it with the longest synomym. This is the kind of writing by thesaurus that many business people and techies employ when they want to sound knowledgeable and important or because they think writing like they speak will make them sound lightweight.

Thanks to Oppenheimer, we know that the opposite is, in fact, true. He says “one thing is certain, write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

10 Responses to Short words are best

  1. Sam Mooney June 10, 2006 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks. I knew it all along and now I can cite scientific proof. Short words, short sentences.

  2. Walton February 11, 2008 at 9:05 am #

    As an ESL teacher working in Kazakhstan, I am grateful for your support. I keep trying to convince my students not to follow the formal Russian style which calls for long words, long sentences, abuse of useless referential words, and piling on redundant clauses. Of course, when writing formal English they copy all of these tendencies. Now they will see it’s not just me!

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    Short words are best…

    In his blog Bad Language, London-based Matthew Stibbe cites (by way of Atlantic Monthly) research by Daniel M. Oppenheimer that shows that besides clouding the meaning, the use of long words actually makes the reader think the author is stupid….

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  8. Entertaining Grammar Resources | English Advantage - April 22, 2011

    [...] and grammar and writing (Trying not to repeat myself). I am definitely sharing the post about how Short words are best because native Russian speakers, at any rate, tend to translate the love of long words and long [...]

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