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Sounding clever

Sounding clever

We've probably all been tempted at some time or another to use longer words to make ourselves sound smarter. But there are consequences to trying to sound clever.

And the world of politics is full of splendid examples of verbal hubris. Victorian parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli famously teased William Gladstone, whom he heartily loathed, as being “a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”, hinting acutely at the flaws of one who tries too hard to impress an audience with ornate public language.

The English language seems to suffer disproportionately with overzealous wordiness.

There was a practice known as “inkhorning” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, where clerks would try to inflate their own importance by using Latinate words in English to suggest their superiority. In the sixteenth century, English was struggling to find its authority, contesting with Latin for example in law or in Church. So the temptation to elaborate words of fancy to create legitimacy was too much for some.

Clerks would try to inflate their own importance by using Latinate words in English to suggest their superiority.

The author George Orwell criticised such convolution in later times: “ad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.”

A study by Princeton University seems to confirm that complexity of words can actually reduce how intelligent other people judge you to be.

In one recent experiment, graduate school admission essays were doctored to different levels of complexity by replacing some of the original words with their longest applicable thesaurus entries. Research participants were then invited to read the essays and rate each applicant's suitability for admission. Highly complex essays were rated more negatively than moderately complex essays, which in turn were rated more negatively than the originals.

Conversely when a dissertation abstract was amended so that words of nine letters or more were replaced with shorter equivalents, the simplified essay was seen to have been written by someone of higher intelligence than the original.

And to prove that eminent writers don't escape these assumptions, two translations of contrasting complexity were made of a passage by the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Whether or not readers knew the piece was by Descartes, those reading the simpler version rated the author as more intelligent than those given the complex version.

The moral? If you're writing to impress, keep it simple.

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