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  • Writer's pictureLarissa Lewis

Do big words actually make you sound smarter?

The last time I heard it out loud was 1993.


Antidisestablishmentarianism.


Belting out this 28-letter monster was like a rite of passage. Kids said it all the time, sporting it as a “smart badge.” It was like a clear line in the sand that separated the second-grade intellectuals from the playground plebs.


Psychedelic colors. A woman stares off in the distance, perplexed. She has a fire haircut and dazzling shoulder-length earrings. The text reads the blog title, "do big words actually make you sound smarter?"

But like it did with quicksand and pomegranates, elementary school made saying “antidisestablishmentarianism” seem like something you’d face more frequently in your adult life.


Fast forward a couple of decades, and smushing huge words into a conversation is actually quite the turnoff. So why’s it so hard for us to shake this bad habit in our writing?


Why do we think big words = high intelligence?


For many of us, it’s a wild worldview to shake.


  • Don’t big words make us sound smarter?

  • Shouldn’t we squish and squeezle as many big words as we can into our writing?

  • If we only use itty-bitty words, how the heck will people respect that we know what we are talking about?


So when we are staring down the blinking cursor, we hear our high school English teachers discouraging casual human-speak.


We’re so trained to think big SAT words “sound smart.” So we stuff simple sentences fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey.


The image features an except from Paul Penn’s “The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree.” The excerpt reads:  “I offer you my apologies (but not a refund) for the next passage of writing. It's necessary to demonstrate what I'm trying to discourage. I'll make this brief and promise never to do it again. Well, not deliberately at least.  In the composition of their manuscripts, students frequently exhibit a proclivity towards circumlocution indicative of a desire to inveigle the favour of their tutors or obfuscate their unsophisticated understanding of the applicable phenomena unaware of the deleterious consequences for the transparency of their composition, or their complicity in perpetuating a problematical orthodoxy that prizes complexity over clarity, conflates impenetrable and verbose prose with profundity and marginalises the reader from engagement with the academic discourse.  Or to put it another way:  You might be tempted to use unnecessarily wordy composition to impress your tutor or conceal the fact that your understanding of a topic is not as advanced as you'd like. This practice only serves to make your writing unclear. It also suggests you have been lulled into thinking that using a convoluted writing style has inherent academic merit. In fact, it's the clarity of your writing that matters most. Unclear writing makes it more likely that the reader will struggle to understand you, get frustrated and move onto other sources.”

We turn to them when discussing our area of expertise because we want people to immediately know we are highly trained, educated, and experienced in the subject matter we hold dear.


It’s so hardwired into our brains, that it’s challenging to turn off the spigot!


Let’s ask the experts: Three studies on sesquipedalian writing


Yes, we think big words showcase smarts. I tried one right up there.


/ˌseskwəpəˈdālyən/ adjective characterized by long words.

(Literally translates to “a foot and a half long” 😂)


So what did you think? Did my IQ skyrocket to the ranks of Einstein and Oppenheimer?


A woman wearing a brightly colored (and very fashionable, mind you) dashiki expresses extreme discontent with your behemoth word choice by rolling her eyes.  She is set against a keyboard that features a sesquipedaliac's favorite button: the "blah blah blah" key.

At first blush, it seems like you would give me a resounding “YES!” That’s probably why 58% of people admit to pulling longer alternatives from the thesaurus, even when they have no idea what the word means.


But things aren’t always what they seem.


Do big words really give us an upper hand? Let’s see what the experts say about sesquipedaliacs.


Are big words more engaging?


When WE use big words, we think we’re masquerading successfully as a genius.


But the minute we hear someone else drop a behemoth monster of a word, it’s almost a red herring for overcompensation. Alarm bells go off in their mind. Their dozen-letter dinger invokes immediate skepticism.


Half of people say they’ve actually tried to leave a conversation just because the other person was using too many big words.



Big words are great at running people off! They build a bigger divide between you and the person you’re trying to connect with.


If it’s a nosy neighbor—maybe you’d prefer they skedaddle. But when you’re trying to attract customers, clients, readers, or even friends, stick with a pocket-sized synonym.


Survey says…: ❌


Do people really view big words as a sure-fire sign of intelligence?


An amazing study, poetically named “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” took a handful of personal statements for graduate school. They presented the participants with the original version and a second version where they changed a third of the words to giant synonyms.


The results?


Readers believed the authors of the versions with simpler words were far more intelligent. Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the psychologist behind the study, came to one conclusion: there’s a “negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.”


Survey says…: ❌


Do big words serve a purpose that isn’t self-serving?


How about we dive into some ideational metafunction?


Puzzled?


Guess what? You’re taking in some ideational metafunction right now. It’s just a wild way some academics came up with to say “written content.”


Woman wearing candy-colored makeup who looks like she owns one-of-a-kind shoes and knows the secret passcode for a  speakeasy that serves drinks named after alt-rock songs gives the ultimate diss: side eye.

In “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences,” Michael Billig chastises his peers for participating in an arms race of complexity.


He argues that writers use unnecessary words to simply “demonstrate that we are professional social scientists, rather than ordinary people who happen to have wandered in from the rain.”


Meanwhile, the reader is left bewildered, assuming they’re left out of some inside joke. They sheepishly retreat, looking for your competitor who’s willing to explain things more clearly.


Survey says…: ❌



The verdict: Too-big words do one thing to our writing. They strip our sentences of feeling, turning them into lifeless, be-zombied versions of our lovable and approachable selves. And usually zombies mean one thing: RUN.



When you want someone to stick around (like a customer!), you’re better off explaining things in such a way that invites people to stay awhile.


Simple and crisp words totally plump with meaning are the real magic elements that make your writing obsessively readable.



Bottomline: Pick short, crisp, and pin-sharp words


There’s one crowd we all know is addicted to formal dreck: the government.


They love wielding that Ye Olde English that most of us need a legal interpreter to make sense of.


Crazy-simple swaps for unnecessarily snoozy words: Instead of ‘Accomplish’, Use: Finish, Win, Get done Instead of ‘Accordingly’, Use: So Instead of ‘Advantageous’, Use: Helpful, Handy, Rewarding Instead of ‘Demonstrate’, Use: Show, Prove, Reveal Instead of ‘Disseminate’, Use: Give out, Hand out Instead of ‘Eliminate’, Use: Erase, Strip, Oust Instead of ‘Expedite’, Use: Speed up, Push through, Fast-track Instead of ‘Facilitate’, Use: Help, Give a hand Instead of ‘However,’ Use: But, On the other hand Instead of ‘Pertaining,’ Use: About

Turns out “NOBODY GETS IT” is a big problem.


So much so, that Vice President Gore handed out the No Gobbledygook Award to recognize government workers whose writing did not require a decoder ring. In 1999, Dan Clem of NASA won the prize for pioneering an effort to de-jargon the space agency’s Safety and Health Handbook.


An excerpt from Dan Clem's award-winning rewrite of the NASA Safety and Health handbook. The excerpt reads:   “Before the rewrite: 204.1 Purpose. The purpose of this chapter is to provide minimum safety requirements for the safe handling and use of the more commonly used cryogenic substances and to identify specific precautions, emergency treatment (Attachment 204A, Appendix B), protective clothing and equipment guidelines, training requirements, and housekeeping information. Requirements set forth in this chapter shall apply to all SC personnel performing operations that require the use, handling, or storage of cryogenic materials. Liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen used as propellants shall follow the requirements of chapter 206, "Explosives and Propellants." Each supervisor involved with cryogenic substances shall thoroughly understand the hazards involved, the safe handling methods, work procedures, and emergency procedures, and ensure that these procedures are understood and strictly adhered to. Facility managers shall be famillar with the cryogenic safety and emergency procedures to ensure that they are implemented in the workplace. Each employee working with cryogenic substances shall thoroughly understand the hazards involved, safe handling methods, work procedures, and emergency procedures.    After the rewrite: Two technicians passed out while transferring liquid nitrogen from a truck because nitrogen spilled into the loading dock and displaced oxygen in the area. They were rescued and are okay. A liquid helium dewar ruptured. Fortunately, no one was in the room at the time. A liquid nitrogen dewar exploded and sent glass fragments flying. Fortunately, the technicians working with the dewar were not in the path of the flying glass. You must follow this chapter if you: • Handle, store, or transfer cryogenic liquids as a part of your job. • Handle or work around gaseous nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen. • Supervise anyone who does the above tasks.”
VP Al Gore awarded Dan Clem the No Gobbledygook Award in 1999.

Remember: in many areas of business, our customers aren’t eggheads in the subject.


We need to communicate our thoughts and ideas to all sorts of people:


  • Entry-level folks who might conduct the initial research for their department.

  • Just because someone is a subject-matter expert doesn’t mean they want to fill their day reading content beefed up with Captain America super serum.

  • Decision-makers, even at the top of the C-Suite, aren’t always trained on the nitty-gritty.


All of these people come to you for expertise. Many specifically seek you out to guide them through an area where they aren’t crazy comfortable.


They want simple answers that begin at their knowledge level—not a homework assignment of new terms to look up in the dictionary.


Scaring folks away is useful in some situations.


But typically, in business, you’re interested in attracting and engaging with customers. So next time you reach for that Thesaurus, ask yourself, “why?”


Is it to unnecessarily complicate your thought?


To give yourself a perceived intellectual edge?


The best word choice might be the one you’re about to look up.



The image features Science & Tech writer Larissa lewis in various Instagram reels. The text reads, "Join us on Instagram! Learn binge-worthy writing tips and tricks that turn your writing from 'huh?' to 'wow!"











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