“Eschew obfuscation,” said the failing English teacher, explaining to his class how to write better essays. It's an old joke, and not a very good one at that, because most of us need to look up a dictionary before we get it.

I was reminded of this story when I came across a paper by Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the Department of Psychology at Princeton University that had this great title: ‘Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly’ [Appl. Cognitive Psych. (2006) 20, 139]. Oppenheimer reports how he altered a series of excerpts, translations, and student essays by changing the complexity of random words. He then asked Stanford students about how easy they found the texts to read and to rate the author's intelligence. Perhaps surprisingly, the more complex the words used, the less intelligent an author appears to the reader.

We all know that we should write simply and clearly, but a lot of us might secretly admit to adding in the odd, extra-impressive word in the past to show that we know our stuff. If not, I'm sure we've all read students' work or some papers where this has been taken to a painful extreme. Apparently, this practice is detrimental to the reader's opinion of the work, regardless of prior expectations of the text's quality.

“The paper investigates the effect of reducing fluency – the feeling of ease or difficulty associated with a mental task – on judgments of intelligence,” explains Oppenheimer. “Reducing fluency hurts readers' inferences about the text's author. In practice, this suggests that writers should attempt to express themselves as clearly as possible.”

Complex and specialized vocabulary is often a necessity in research where there is need for precision and accuracy. However, we need to recognize that this creates an exclusive club of those who can follow the language (and is also why some try to to become a member by overusing complicated terms). Care is needed, especially in interdisciplinary areas, that unnecessary jargon doesn't become a barrier to entry for those outside the immediate specialty. I know from personal experience how language can be the biggest challenge in grasping the world of molecular biology, for example.

We try our best to make Materials Today accessible and easy to read, but no doubt we could do more. In his paper, Oppenheimer quotes studies that have found that fluency and simpler writing can lead to higher judgements of the text's truth, greater confidence in what is said, and even liking of the author. So it's clearly something to strive for!

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71634-0