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In Praise of Simple Language

Here is part of a post from Daphne Gray-Grant.

Do you think using long words makes you look smart? Daniel Oppenheimer knows it doesn't. A professor of psychology at Princeton University, he is the author of a new study to be published in a recent edition of Applied Cognitive Psychology. The study goes by the amusing title: Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.

But the study's findings are anything but funny for wordy writers. In a series of five experiments, Oppenheimer found that readers tend to rate the intelligence of people who wrote essays in simpler language, as higher than those who used more complex words. Yes, higher. Interestingly, the same "halo" effect applied to people who used simple fonts. The simpler the fonts, the more intelligent the writers were thought to be.

"One thing seems certain," says Oppenheimer. "Write as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as intelligent."

I wonder if the same is true of writing in academic journals, when academics judge each other? I know that I value clear writing and tend to be annoyed by writing that demonstrates the apparent purpose of intentionally obfuscating the obvious.


  1. The passage below is an excerpt from an actual email message I received from my writing mentor. A year ago, he wrote me messages describing the horrible tummy aches he got when he read obfuscatory academic prose. His more recent comments are to inform me that my writing is at once snotty and dessicated -- I think that's equivalent to a booger. He's asking me to rewrite the three pages I finally managed to write after suffering from writers block for the past 6 months.

    "I'll have more specific comments soon on the actual text you sent, which is on target and just needs wordsmithing, especially to make it more accessible to everyday Joes like me and my kin. Remember you are not writing for a specialized audience because there is no specialized audience for this work. It needs to be accessible to smart people with vastly different backgrounds."

  2. Maybe the writer's block comes from having your mentor telling you your writing is snotty and dessicated. Too bad he's so picky; it really gets in the way of productivity when you're in drafting mode.


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