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People tend to equate intelligence with simpler language

 
 
ehBeth
 
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:27 pm
This isn't really a question/comment specific to English, but it was the only forum that seemed to fit.

About ten days ago, I read several articles about some research that was done about use of 'big words'. It appears that bigger isn't really better in the eye of many readers (or at least the ones being studied).

a link to one of the articles

Quote:
Essay writers who use complicated language where simple words will do tend to be seen as less intelligent than people who stick with more basic vocabulary, according to a new study.

This suggests that attempts to impress readers by rifling through a thesaurus may actually backfire, study author Daniel Oppenheimer of Stanford University in California told Reuters Health.

"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," Oppenheimer said.

"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," he noted.



Quote:
Oppenheimer found that people tended to rate the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language as higher than those who penned the more complex works.

This finding persisted whether the authors were fellow students or the philosopher Descartes, said Oppenheimer, who reported the findings at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Los Angeles.


Quote:
The researcher added that he is not sure why people tend to equate intelligence with simpler language. He said that people might just prefer things that are easy to understand.


Now, I'll admit that this research supports something I've always felt about good writing/good argument. Simply stated is better to my eye.

I'm curious how others feel about this.
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:30 pm
Clearly stated- with long words if they are the ones which best express the concepts.
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gustavratzenhofer
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:30 pm
I'm with you on this one, Beth.
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:30 pm
or if i just like 'em....
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Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:35 pm
I enjoy playing with language, and have found that precise, uncommonly used words can allow one to construct a long sentence in the attempt to deliver a discrete thought in a single "pass." I also am very good at technical writing, which usually suffers from vagueness, ommission and unnecessary complexity. I do well at technical writing because i am able to condense instruction to the fewest simple words and terms which will convey the meaning.

Brevity is, after all, alleged to be the soul of wit. My favorite example of this is an exchange of George Washington with a Colonel of the Continental line who had his permission to hold a drum-head court for two soldiers apprehended in the commission of a rape.

Col: "Convicted. Recommend execution."

Washington: "Concurred in."

Col: "Executed."


All three messages were written on the same small scrap of paper.
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edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:36 pm
Depends on the writer, in my view.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:42 pm
I think that trying to judge writing by the length of the words is like trying to judge painting based on the length of the strokes.
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edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:43 pm
Being able to convey clarity of meaning, whether using all the words available, or just a few, is what is most important.
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Sofia
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:50 pm
I guess if it sounds like someone's reaching for an 'impressive' word--its a turn off.

If it fits in the natural flow of the sentence, I don't know why anybody would criticise it--unless they had to keep getting out the dictionary.
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ehBeth
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:51 pm
Part of what I found interesting about the research was that the result of people using 'big' words/terms/phrases was the opposite of what they probably expected. It certainly wasn't what I would have expected. The study results support my personal preference, but they're not at all what I thought others thought.

There are times when I use a word/concept which is not the most basic, simply because I'm amused by the word or the way it fits into a discussion. I don't think I'll give that up, don't know that I can. More mulling to do.
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Joeblow
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 06:55 pm
Do you think they meant gratuitous ostentation?
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Equus
 
  2  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 07:19 pm
Did you guys sing this song in summer camp?

Propel, Propel, Propel your craft
Placidly through the liquid solution
Ecstatically, Ecstatically, ecstatically, Ecstactically,
Existence is but an illusion.
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ehBeth
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 07:21 pm
I think I'll stop mulling long enough to grrrrrrrrr at Equus.
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 07:28 pm
Mister Rogers, yup.

I like "eschew obfuscation."

I keep wanting more details on WHY people thought that. For example, maybe the writers who stated things more simply were able to convey their ideas more effectively. As in, the readers just plain understood things better, and so were better able to appreciate the writers' intelligence.

(The last quote in the OP gets at something similar, though not exactly the same thing.)

I also wonder if it's something about empathy, drawing the reader in rather than talking down to the reader. If people feel talked down to, they are probably more likely to retaliate by saying, "Eh, he's dumb" even if that is not necessarily their true reaction. (Like, they might think the person is smart but they're annoyed by the talking-down.)

Lastly (have I read the article? No. I have a little 5-minute chunk in a long day and I enjoy blathering on), I have definitely seen situations where people kind of stick in a long word that screams "LONG WORD!!!" and might be technically correct but just doesn't flow (as Sofia mentioned, too.) I think the very same long word could get very different verdicts in different situations.

Interesting topic, though!
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 07:28 pm
I was told in college that getting your point across with the fewest words was a good thing - concise writing. And, I tend to like harder concepts with easier words. Use the big ones only when neccessary.
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suzy
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 08:10 pm
Interesting. Especially when the word is used repeatedly. I feel like asking; "Learn a new word today?" or suggesting they grab a thesaurus to 'mix it up a bit'. I find nothing more boring than to read than the same word sprinkled throughout a paragraph. (or a thread).
I do a newsletter, and have sometimes edited contributions where a writer repeated 'big words' because to me, it sounds silly. (I just replace the word with another). IMO, It looks 'smarter' to construct a more reader-friendly sentence.
Interesting survey.
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Piffka
 
  1  
Reply Wed 14 Apr, 2004 09:32 pm
It is true that a bigger word isn't always as effective as a simpler one, and bigger words won't mask the lack of scholarship. However, it is also true that neither is a simpler, more general word always the most appropriate. I am sure I recently read the statistic that Shakespeare used 20,000 words in his plays... surely he did that to make them more interesting.

To me, there is something good to be said about having a large vocabulary and knowing how to use it. I am surprised that this research calls this a sign of lower intelligence. I am surprised and I lightly scoff. Is this another harbinger of the "dumbing down" of society?

<Hope nobody minded that I used "harbinger" instead of "sign" again.>


I thought this was interesting:

Quote:
"The fact that the non-obfuscated essays are easier to read makes people like them better, which in turn makes people evaluate the essays more positively in all dimensions--including the intelligence of the author," Oppenheimer noted.


This reminds me of the hoohaw a year or two ago when a teacher used the word "niggardly" and nearly lost his job.


On the other hand, there is no doubt that big words can look totally stupid and out-of-place... I've seen it many times on college essays. <ugh> It can be embarassing to to read. The best writing is clear, succinct and uses words that are honest and well-known to the writer.

However I see nothing wrong with a practicing writer actively learning new words ... what is the shame in that?

So is the point of this "news" that we're supposed to quit learning (at some arbitrary point) and using new words or else the "thought police" will give us a "bad grade"? I would be very surprised if anyone (almost anyone) at a2k didn't want to continue to learn.

These are the examples from this article that purport to show good and a bad writing:

Quote:
He explained in an interview that one essay might contain the (GOOD) phrase "the primary academic goal I have set for myself is to use my potential to the fullest"; its (BAD) counterpart read "the principal educational aspiration I have established for myself is to utilize my capabilities to the fullest."


Even the "good" statement is poor. It is in a passive format and babbles about a simple truth. Why else would someone bother to enter academia except to do well? Who the hell knows their potential or capabilities until they've stretched themselves? What are their damned secondary and tertiary goals then? Those are probably much more interesting.

I would much rather read something written where the language was played with, where it was light-hearted and interesting. And I, for one, am always pleased to learn and savor a new word.
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 15 Apr, 2004 03:49 am
Re: People tend to equate intelligence with simpler language
ehBeth wrote:
About ten days ago, I read several articles about some research that was done about use of 'big words'. It appears that bigger isn't really better in the eye of many readers (or at least the ones being studied).

I think this mostly reflects a change in tastes about public speech and public writing. In the olden days, formal speech in a high tone used to be an art form appreciated by most people. Then, over the 20th century, radio and TV took over as the dominant media for communicating thoughts. As a result, mastery of the English language gave way to just plain talking, preferrably in a Frank Sinatra voice and by a handsome anchorman.

Intelligent writers and speakers adapted to this change in tastes. Winston Churchill, himself a great orator, started making fun of the high tone someday in the middle of the 20th century: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put". And today, if a modern speaker still tries to sound like Abraham Lincoln -- "Four score and seven years ago" -- he is unwillingly communicating to his audience: "Look at me, I'm out of touch!". It's not the style itself that seems unintelligent -- it's the speaker's inability to sense his audience's tastes and expectations, and to adapt his language accordingly.
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Wilso
 
  1  
Reply Thu 15 Apr, 2004 04:13 am
When I first started uni, we had a meeting for the mature age students where they showed us a couple of examples of writing. They made it very clear that what they wanted in our essays, was simple clear english, and to avoid very formal writing.
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cavfancier
 
  1  
Reply Thu 15 Apr, 2004 04:28 am
What you talking about Willis?

But seriously...I like to read verbose fiction, but prefer to communicate in the most direct and simple way possible. Here is a quote from one of my favourite novels, 'The Debt to Pleasure', which is deliberately and unapoligetically pretentious, and it's all about food and murder....sweet:

"The role of curry in contemporary English life is often misunderstood. It (curry, that is, not English life) is often seen as an exercise in what the French would call "le style retro." (The French are dedicated to slang as a means of systematizing the process of inclusion and exclusion, not crudely but in those small ways which cumulatively serve the function of telling the outsider that he doesn't quite get the point - making him suffer the tiny inner defeat of not understanding a punchline, not twigging a reference; as for instance the hotelier in this decent Lorient establishment - three-starred and restaurant-rosetted, some hundred-plus kilometers from the site of our luncheon, a distance achieved thanks to the excellence of the "route nationale" system in preference to the thronged competitive death-dealing surprisingly expensive autoroutes, and also thanks to the liveliness of my light Renault, not to mention the weather, the breeze racing over one's unreluctantly discarded trilby, the pattern of sunlight changing over the wind-darkened fields like the soul of a man responding to the promptings of God -- the hotelier used the word "resto" in an attempt to outflank my command of the colloquial; as I replied "Oui, un bon resto" I poker-playishly detected in his eyes the momentary flicker of an unexpected reverse.) On this view, curry plays a nostalgic, retrogressive role in British culinary culture; the proliferation of restaurants specializing in it is a consolation prize for the loss of world-historical consequence; we are to be understood as having given away the Empire and received in return, in delayed settlement of that very considerable invoice, the street-corner tandoori house."
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