First impressions or assumptions based on the words we use

I love the Nielsen Norman Group articles. Their tag line summarizes their style of writing well: “Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting.” Their articles are focused, on a single topic, and they always include inline links to other articles they are referring to or building off of. My favorite part of their articles, when they include it, is the references section at the bottom. I’d bet most people skip that section, but I always find the gems of evidence-based research there. Today’s article was no exception.

Hoa Loranger posted the article, “Cringeworthy Words to Cut from Online Copy,” and the references section was a pleasant surprise for me. The article itself reports personal choices of “cringeworthy” words (such as utilize, enables, and very) — what a great word cringeworthy is to choose to use here, to convey the emotion behind certain words, to convey how readers make assumptions based on the words we use. Within the introduction and the five choices are links to other NN/g articles that back up her choices. (I encourage you to explore all of the articles linked to in this one.)

When I got to the conclusion and saw the reference, I did not expect to find an article that was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology journal:

Oppenheimer, D. M.(2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 139-156.

(I found a PDF of this journal article from a handy-dandy Google search.)

How could I not go and try to read a journal article with such an appropriate title and subtitle? I geeked out as I read through the journal article, which described 5 different experiments that were performed at Stanford University. The net results stated: “needless complexity leads to negative evaluations” in particular about the author’s intelligence. While many people often use more complex words in an attempt to sound more intelligent, these experiments showed that the opposite first impression occurred. Oppenheimer does acknowledge that the experiments were limited to a student population, and that complex words might not always be problematic if the intended audience were more likely to readily understand those complex words.

Once again, we are brought back around to two basic guiding principles of technical communication: (1) know your audience and (2) keep it simple.

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2 Responses to First impressions or assumptions based on the words we use

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    It’s interesting to me that the students’ reaction to big words was not “the author is smarter than me” or even “I’m simply tuning out” — but, rather, “the author is a dunce.” One wouldn’t expect the general population to react in the same way (although — who knows? — they might). Perhaps the students’ bullshit-detection skills are especially well honed. In any case, it’s refreshing news.


    • Michelle Corbin says:

      Yes! And, they still did it themselves when writing papers for class! Fascinating experiments! I love that someone studied it, even with the limited participants.


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