A Word, Please: Flowery writing can turn off readers
It’s a question that has hounded us all: What are the consequences of erudite vernacular used irrespective of necessity?
OK, not really. That’s the ironic title of an academic paper published in 2005 by Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Oppenheimer that studied the effects of stuffy, reader-unfriendly language. The subtitle brought it back down to Earth: “The problems of using long words needlessly.”
Oppenheimer’s study turned up some interesting findings about academic writing that apply outside the academic world, offering lessons for business writers, essayists, bloggers, novelists and anyone who wants to write better.
The big takeaway: Highfalutin, fancy language doesn’t make readers think you’re smart. Quite the opposite.
For the study, the author manipulated the language in written works, leaving some pieces in simple terms and putting others in unnecessarily complex language. Then readers were asked how smart the writer seemed to them.
The results: “a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.” In other words, the fancier the language, the dumber the writer was perceived to be.
Personally, this hasn’t been my experience. Maybe there are a lot more gullible readers in my little world, but more than once I’ve seen readers, including professional editors, swoon over ornate-but-bad writing.
One instance stands out in my memory: An inexperienced assignment editor raved to me about the flowery writing in a feature article he was working on. When it was time for me to copy edit the article, I found myself in the awkward position of gently pointing out that the fancy, excessively descriptive article made no sense and failed to convey the needed information.
When using indefinite articles, the sound of a word can be more important than its spelling, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.
I’ve seen a similar effect in reverse: When lots of people are talking about an article not for its writing but for its content, that tells you that the writer succeeded in getting out of the way of the message.
But apparently, academic writers think they can pull the wool over readers’ eyes with a little linguistic razzle-dazzle. According to Oppenheimer’s paper, “a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence.”
It’s good to know that not every reader falls for it.
“Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers’ evaluations of the text and its author,” Oppenheimer reported.
So simple, clear communication not only helps you get your point across, it improves readers’ opinion of you in the process. Which raises the question: How can you use these insights to improve your own writing? Here are some tips.
For starters, use simple words. Tempted to write “utilize”? Don’t. Write “use” instead. “Elucidate” can be “explain.” “Witnessed” can be “saw.” “Consequently” can be “so.” “Expeditious” can be “fast.”
Also, don’t bury your verbs. Instead of saying, “We will conduct an inventory” you can often say “We will inventory.” Instead of saying “Vitamin A can help improve skin tone,” say “Vitamin A can improve skin tone.” Instead of saying “Children who presented good behavior,” say “Children who behaved well.”
Finally, speak your reader’s language. Technical terms and business jargon can be downright rude to readers, suggesting they should accommodate you and not the other way around. Instead of saying “Incidence of severe postprandial dysglycemia,” just say “blood sugar swings after meals.”
You can find more tips at plainlanguage.gov.
In rare cases, big words are the best choice because they’re the only words that capture what you’re trying to say. In those cases, just make sure you’ve done your best to help the reader understand them. As Oppenheimer’s research showed, readers won’t think you’re dumb if you use big words — only if you use them needlessly.
— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
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