A 2006 study done at Princeton University showed that randomly using big words in essay-writing in order to impress professors often has the opposite effect. It ends up keeping the writing from being read fluently, and can be perceived by a scholarly reader as putting very simple ideas in complex terms — and what’s the point of that? (I love the title of the study: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”)
I found out about this study through references on several other websites before I read it myself. It obviously made a big splash when it came out. leading to articles in such publications as Inc. and Business Insider magazines, as well as posts on several blogs. All those referencing the study took its conclusion and ran with it, neglecting to mention that the “big words” being used were written, not spoken. They presumed that the same principle applies to speaking and essentially said that if you use “big words” in conversation, you are a jerk. I disagree.
Spoken language can be expressive in ways that writing simply can’t. Someone reading an essay is not hearing tone of voice, nor seeing facial expression and gestures, nor experiencing direct contact with another human being. All those things are factors in how “big words” come across in conversation. This is not to say that throwing $5 words into conversation is never off-putting; it certainly can be. When I hear others use unfamiliar words, I am either intrigued and curious or I roll my eyes. I’m intrigued when the speaker is lively, curious, humble and speaks with precision. My eyes roll when the word is coming from the mouth of someone who is clearly trying to impress.
Most children have the social skills to determine whether a particular audience will appreciate a rich “dictionary” vocabulary, and may even be reluctant to use more sophisticated words when among friends. But, as with adults, a few may become a tad self-important and insufferable. It’s important for all of us to be socially aware enough to “code-switch,” recognizing that different situations may call for different word choices.
My three previous blogs in this series urge helping kids to develop a richer supply of available words. Lest I appear an arrogant snob, when I talk about expanding vocabulary, it doesn’t have to be “dictionary” vocabulary. Acquisition of any new vocabulary adds neurons and pathways to the brain, whether it’s a second language, the “insider-speak” used in various cultures, locations and careers, or the lingo used by people in different generations. And words drawn from these lexicons can be employed in a way that, with a little curiosity from the listener and explanation from the speaker, either INcludes others or EXcludes them. In essence, intention matters: try to communicate directly and humbly and you’re more likely to find a receptive audience. Try to impress or exclude and watch your audience head for the exits.
For a few interesting $5 words that you or your child might want to add to your dictionary vocabulary, see “30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter (But Not Pretentious).”