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.
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.”