complex vs. simple words

We’re going to start off this blog post by asking you to take a look at two versions of the same sentence:

  • A: We will select the best way to implement the program.
  • B: We will make a selection about the most appropriate method for the implementation of the program.

What do you think of these sentences? You may think that Sentence B makes the person who wrote the sentence sound smarter and more impressive. After all, we’ve been taught that intelligence, education, and complex vocabularies go hand in hand: In school, we were expected to learn and use longer and more complex words as we progressed from one grade to another. Many of us also took standardized tests like the SAT or the GRE, tests that assessed, in part, how familiar we were with long, complex words (e.g., “abscond” and “soporific”). These experiences have led us to believe that we should use long, complex words if we want to sound smart because that’s what smart people do.

Experts know, however, that it’s much harder to explain a complex topic (e.g., quantum physics) using simple words than it is to explain that same topic using long, complex words. Why? Because you really need to know your stuff to be able to identify the most important points to emphasize, strip them of unnecessary jargon, and explain them using simple words. For this reason, experts are usually more impressed by someone who can explain something in 250 relatively simple words than by someone who needs 1000 more complex words to say the same thing.

However, if you use long, complex words when you really don’t need to, you’re not just missing out on getting some extra benefits. Instead, you may be making people think that you’re not as smart as you actually are. Research conducted by Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer at Princeton University shows that people view documents and their authors less favourably when these documents contain long, complex words. For example, Oppenheimer found that admissions essays containing long, complex words received lower scores from reviewers than essays containing simpler words did. He also found that people viewed the author of a document to be less intelligent when the document contained complex vs. simple words.

Because readers know that people often use long words unnecessarily to make themselves seem smarter, using long words may reduce the confidence that people have in you. If people think that you’re using long words to make yourself seem like more of an expert on a topic than you actually are, they may be less likely to trust you and see you as a credible person. Don’t miss out on gaining customers or impressing an admissions committee by making people think that you’re an amateur instead of an expert. The last thing you want is to turn these people off by making them think that you’re trying to manipulate their impression of you. Impress people with your ideas and your ability to convey them clearly instead of with the complexity of your words.

Before we bring this post to an end, we want to note that long, complex words aren’t always bad to use. There are ways to use them responsibly, and in some cases, they may be your only option (e.g., when you need to define the abbreviation “DNA”). Long, complex words only become a problem when people use them unnecessarily. Some of the key ways that this happens is when people use the noun form of a word instead of the verb form (e.g., “selection” instead of “select”) and when people use longer forms of what is essentially the same word (e.g., “utilize” instead of “use”). In our post on “16 tips for writing concisely reducing your word count,” we discuss how using complex words unnecessarily makes sentences wordy. We also provide tips for trimming them down.

Although it can be a bit of an adjustment to start using short, simple words when you’re used to using long and complex ones, you don’t have to jump right into the deep end. Start by using simpler language when writing for an audience who already knows and respects you. As you become more comfortable writing like this, you’ll be able to use it when connecting with new people.

Have any lingering questions about using complex vs. simple words? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll get in touch. Your question may even inspire one of our upcoming posts!

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Why using long words makes you sound like an amateur instead of an expert
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