The puffer fish is a slow swimmer in a sea of bigger, faster predators. When chased by a large hungry fish, a puffer rapidly inflates its stomach. This doubles its size and makes its spines stick out. Many pursuers are warned off by this display, but it is not the puffer’s only defense. Even predators with large teeth will have a hard time getting a grip on a tough-skinned, spiny sphere. Puffers are also among the most toxic species on Earth.
Inflation works for the puffer fish. Writers often assume it will work for them too. They think that using big words will make their ideas seem bigger. They also hope that stringing polysyllables together will make them look smarter.
The effect is likely to be just the opposite. A 2006 study by Daniel Oppenheimer found that the more writers inflated their language, the less likely they were to be seen as intelligent.
Judge for yourself. Here are two acceptance speeches. Which writer seems smarter?
Writer 1: “Formal studies conducted under controlled conditions have led to the inescapable conclusion that composers of written materials who avoid proliferation of words, needless digressions, and polysyllabic words are perceived to be more intelligent than writers who indulge in prolixity and eschew concision. So I wish to express my gratitude for your recognition of my research endeavors.”
Writer 2: “My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So thank you.”
The second example is Daniel Oppenheimer’s acceptance speech for the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. The Ig Nobels, awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, recognize research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think.
Oppenheimer hopes his results will help writers avoid inflated language . “I think it’s important to point out that this study is not about problems with using long words, it’s about problems with using long words needlessly. If the best way to say something involves using a complex word, then by all means do so. But if there are several equally valid ways of expressing your ideas, you should go with the simpler one.”
Do you tend to use inflated language? Two online tools can help you simplify your language. Take the Writer’s Diet Test at http://writersdiet.com/WT.php or get suggestions for shortening your sentences from this online readability checker: www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp
Picture of puffer fish is a public domain image from http://a-z-animals.com/animals/puffer-fish/pictures/2909/
Oppenheimer’s acceptance speech was quoted in “The Ig Nobel Winners’ Circle,” Nature, October 12, 2006, p. 617. His Ig Nobel-winning paper,”Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(2): 139–156.
Oppenheimer’s comment on his results is from Jody Bruner’s July 25, 2009, post, “How to Impress Your Boss”: http://brunerbiz.com/tag/daniel-oppenheimer/
The official Ig Nobel site is http://www.improbable.com/ig/