Big Words Make You Sound Smart, Don’t They?

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Many people think that they sound smarter when they use big words. The truth of the matter is that smart communicators use words that (a) they understand and (b) their readers are likely to understand.

The purpose of writing is to communicate. Communication is the process by which meaning is created and exchanged. If the person who reads your writing doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, no communication occurs when he or she reads your writing.

In order to communicate effectively, you have to use language properly, and you have to use language that people are likely to understand.

Lately I have noticed many people misusing the word “detrimental” when what they really mean is “instrumental” or “important.” For example, I read a memo that someone wrote requesting permission to attend a meeting. The memo said, “It is detrimental that I go to the meeting next week.”

Ironically, the misuse of the word implies the exact opposite of what the person meant. Detrimental implies that some negative outcome would be associated with the person’s attendance at the meeting. What the writer meant was “important.”

A misused big word has the opposite effect of making you sound smart! A big word used correctly, but unnecessarily, has the effect of making you sound pedantic. If you have to go get a dictionary to see what “pedantic” means, I have made my point!

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117 thoughts on “Big Words Make You Sound Smart, Don’t They?”

  1. That’s a good point. I’m guilty of that sometimes and it was a daily encounter in college papers (if used incorrectly). But how can you expect people to expand their vocabulary when they’re constantly writing for people who see the same words over and over again? Throwing in a few words, that require a brief flip of the dictionary, can only be beneficial.

  2. It’s not just about making sure you use the right word correctly! It’s about making sure you use an appropriate word.

    By that I mean that because writing is not about you, it’s about your audience, it’s important to use the kinds of words that they can understand.

  3. The problem is that most people who misuse “big” words actually think they KNOW what the word means. They’re not usually reaching for something to make them sound smart. The example you give sounds like it’s an instance of this. In my office, people misuse phrases all the time – but they have ready (incorrect) definitions for them. I was amazed when I found this out. The problem can’t be fixed by asking people to be humble in their word choices, since they don’t know what they don’t know.

  4. I think there is a very fine line between using the precise word, and using a word that sounds important.

    I would much rather use the precise word to describe a situation, than to settle on another word that just doesn’t convey the same feeling.

  5. anyone can say big words. however, doing so does not prove your intelligence. infact, it’s more of how you speak and use your words.

  6. I don’t remember exactly when, but an old teacher of mine was telling me how if you use “big words,” generally people will listen to you LESS because they don’t understand what you are saying. Or they have to much pride to admit they don’t know what you are saying so will be even more confused.
    Just a thought to chew on.

  7. I completely agree and am afraid to say that i have done this many a time to impress my piers but more often than not, it has the opposite effect. I do however, find it hilarious how people use the the term “ironic” completely inappropriately when in fact the situation is merely coincidence. Then agen i also agree with some of the comments above, if you dont use words that people cant understand then they wont ever learnt he meaning of them and stick to the restricted vocabulary that they have. Im aware that i probably sound like a complete idiot so im going to stop typing now.

  8. ‘Detrimental’ is a “big” word now?

    I’m sorry, but if that’s the case, I don’t think writing in English has much of a future. And it certainly won’t if we start dumping words our readers may not know; that can only lead to a vicious cycle where generation upon generation of writers reduce the vocabulary available.

    I still remember being told that one of my stories was poorly written because the reader did not understand the word ‘lascivious’, and suggested I find an alternative. The thing is: that was exactly the word I’d wanted to use and it was exactly what that sentence needed. No alternatives could be used as replacement that wouldn’t add at least a couple of words, and in all cases broke the flow of the story…

    I felt like I was stuck between two extremes: use the tools available for the job, or literally pander to ignorance.

  9. the way we are going to do this is were going to take different sized batteries and doing the same to each of them by taking steel wool and attaching it to each side of the batteries and finding out which battery burns the steel wool tyhe fastest

  10. Hi,

    I was having coffee with some friends at a side-walk cafe. Then we heard a loud crashing sound. It must have came from an accident few blocks away.

    I overheard one guy in the cafe said, ” I think, its a crucial accident “. He probably meant that it was a serious one.

    To me, his use of the word “crucial” is worse than the accident.

  11. Your comments are valid and well made. Your readers’ blogs are embarassing. Poor spelling, poor grammar, poor vocabulary — did anyone listen in grammar school?

  12. I agree that a good vocabulary is necessary, and I think everyone should be well rounded and affluent in their own language. But the laughable thing I see when I read certain things, such as comments on a science blog etc., is that people tend to use words that they probably had to look up in a dictionary while writing it, just to try to sound intelligent. I usually see right through it and see that the writer is over-compensating for a lack of a good vocabulary, which doesn’t necessarily mean you are any less intelligent, I regress. I think you should just write about what you want, and how you want, and try to learn how to write better by taking a class or (stay with me here) actually going to college and getting your full potential.
    Anyway, sorry for the rant, I guess it’s just a pet peeve of mine to see people trying too hard and not being themselves.

  13. uhh detrimental could have been used correctly in that context if it was impervious to their health in order to go to this meeting…

  14. I couldn’t agree more.

    Azmanar’s comment about the man who wrongly used the word “crucial” is something I commonly witness here in Asia. (I laughed when I read that!;))

    On a side note, I was in a cafe and there was a chinese lady talking to an Arab tourist. She said, “I never talk chinese one. Cantonese, mandarin I dono one. I just speaking english one.” I understand that she was trying to impress the tourist with her English skills, by perhaps pretending that she only speaks English (in asia, somehow if you only speak English and don’t know how to speak your mother tongue, it shows that you are of a higher ‘status’) but I just had to laugh hard when I heard what she said.

    Sorry for the long rant!

  15. Yes, I am categorically certain that it is unequivocally incontrovertible that I recurrently employ gargantuan and multifarious terminology throughout the progression of otherwise ingenuous assertions with the intention of facilitating the manifestation of the opinion that I am of extraordinary and superior astuteness.

  16. (laughing along with haha)

    Joe, I agree completely. There are instances wherein only a particular word will suffice and nothing else will cut the muster. Unfortunately, there are many people who wouldn’t know how to use a dictionary (if they even own one!) for anything more intellectually stimulating than squashing spiders.

    I suppose the issue becomes what we, as writers, are seeking to accomplish. If we’re writing to convey information to readers on an intellectual level equal to our own, then we should use whatever words the work needs to do the job; if we’re writing for children, farm animals, or dullards then we must “dumb down” our vocabulary accordingly, lest we leave our readers in the dust. Neglecting to follow this simple equation will likely lead us to failure.

    I tend to be a bit verbose in my writing, I think, and certainly use some wording that would have been more at-home in a previous generation. I don’t think I’m wrong for doing so, because I get my point across, convey the information I wish to transmit, and entertain my readers (many of which are intelligent and discerning persons [after all, look whose work they’re reading hahaha] and aren’t derailed by my word choices)…and at the same time I’m enjoying what I do, which makes it a solid-gold win-win situation for me.

  17. I agree completely that using words that are likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of your audience is a bad idea. So I always wonder why so many continue to do that.

    It occured to me that many do it just to keep up with others they work with so that don’t appear to be less knowledgeable. The other reason might be that if many of the people you work with talk like that, you need to keep up with the conversation. You need to at least understand what the others are saying, and you can’t change other peoples idea of simple communication.

    I am currently reading books written by Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. I find the same difficulties in reading their books. I believe these men to be intelligent enough to know how to communicate in a simpler fashion, but still use these big or obscure words. I suspect it is in the nature of the groups of people they work with that it becomes a part of their communication whether they agree with the methods or not.

    My point is that even when I read or listen to people that I respect and I believe can communicate better, they are almost forced to do so at a higher level that the average person.

    So, like it or not, I think we all have to increase our vocabulary to at least keep up the those who won’t keep it simple.

  18. I totally agree with Joe, in number 12. I find that using substantial words occasionally allows others to adapt to that level of vocabulary. By concealing words that help develop the mind, we only reduce the words in our knowledge. Eventually, we will realize our intelligence has decreased so much, that words such as, “insane” and “active” will be classified as big words. A hilarious incident that occurred at my school was when the area around me began to stink and I said to my friend, “Did you flatulate?” He replied, “Can you speak English.”

  19. Okay, I am 12. Shocker huh? But, I do know that a myriad of people try to use copious amounts of large words without completely understanding the definition of the morpheme. Therefore , amidst using the edict now what the hell you are phrasing.

  20. We never use polite words in the conversations between freinds. People are different of thinking; some of them are fond of being affable when they are talking to those they do not know well.

  21. Learn the big words and use the big words or fear their extinction. Should those words continue with a vestigial assignment for the future, then you’ve just helped other people become a little dumber and yourself a little less with the ability to express. That said, you obviously don’t just whack people over the head with a 5-syllable monster, ….just to do it. Or maybe you do ! .. lol….

  22. Brittany, nice try– but no twelve year-old would ever be capable of cogitating statement like that…and the fact that your comment contains so many big/seldom used words…on a blog complaining about the usage of such words, only proves as testament that you’re an internet troll.

  23. Au contraire, Marie

    Having an arsenal of “big” words handy is a very useful compositional tactic. See, I could have written, “knowing big words can be useful when writing”, but, not only does that sound boring, it also lacks the nuance of the original. In the first sentence, my use of the words “arsenal” and “tactic” connote that when I write a post such as this one, I quite literally envision myself going to battle with the likes of you.

    Mary, in a mean ol’ way, talks bad about the different words people can use to talk to each other, if they try to learn a new word everyday. This sort of approach will lead to the death of the English language.

    Or, if you like:

    Mad Mary maliciously maligns the myriad methods of expressing meaning made available to methodical students of the English language, thereby maximizing it’s chances of morbidity.

    Also, if I didn’t need to reference a dictionary to understand the word “pedantic”, does that then mean that you in fact did NOT make your point?

  24. Man, you’re just a pseudo-intellectual; no one is impressed by your alleged “arsenal” of big words. Anyone can use a thesaurus to find complexed words that are synonyms to simple and common words.

    Never use a five-dollar word where a fifty-cent word will do the job just as well or better.

  25. What you lack, Fred, is perspicuity. While a thesaurus is certainly a good tool to find words that have similar meanings, it is absolutely imperative that you refrain from using a thesaurus to “find complexed words that are synonyms to simple and common words.” While one might look up the word ‘funny’ in a thesaurus to find different ways to describe your use of the word ‘complexed,’ you will stumble upon words that look good, such as ‘facetious’ and ‘capricious,’ which are not correct in the way which is desired. A thesaurus must always be used to find the correct word, not the word that looks the best. In this case, the word ‘risible’ might be the more apropos selection.

  26. Oh look, another pseudo-intellectual with a thesaurus propped on his knee.

    You’re trying too hard to come off as a sesquipedalian.

  27. What you lack Fred, is perspicuity. While a thesaurus is certainly a good tool to find words that have similar meanings, it is absolutely imperative that you refrain from using a thesaurus to “find complexed words that are synonyms to simple and common words.” While one might look up the word ‘funny’ in a thesaurus to find different ways to describe your use of the word ‘complexed,’ you will stumble upon words that look good, such as ‘facetious’ and ‘capricious,’ which are not correct in the way which is desired. A thesaurus must always be used to find the correct word, not the word that looks the best. In this case, the word ‘risible’ might be the more apropos selection.

  28. At times, I receive feedback that the words in a writing are too big. In my view, they are not. A sprinkling of obscure words may exist. That’s it. When I receive such an observation, I will often apply the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test to the text to assess it and improve future writings.

    Funny, normally the writing is graded around the grade five level. This level should be quite appropriate for a general audience. This still creates a number of issues relating to audience, testing, sample size and more. What is fascinating is that geography seems to have a bearing on where most observations originate from. I say no more.

    On the other hand, it is satisfying when University educated readers express enjoyment in reading a paper at the grade five to eight levels. Their minds no doubt are tired. In addition, they more inclined to see the effort that was put into making a complex topic easy to digest. They truly appreciate the effort.

    Seems no matter what we do, in the end you may still end up somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

  29. I must apologize this is a second thought Stephen that came on a reread of this post. Missed it the first time. Happens.

    I beg to differ as to the purpose of writing. It is not just to communicate.We should be aware of this and know when to use it and when it is being abused by another.

    Writing style, diction and tone may be have deep rooted economic, political or personal objects. More too. Clever people use writing or speech as a way to restrict the parties who may influence the discourse in an area of concern.

    It is deliberately used to some degree by all professions to protect their economic territory or power. This topic goes far beyond the few sentences I am writing here. In fact, we could no doubt spend years examining this very topic.

    The medium is the message. And nowadays the message is the medium too, i e social networking. I am sorry this area of interest deserves much more discussion but I am short of time. Indeed I believe you could write at least one book on ” The Anthropology of Language and Power” Not today.

    To bring this point home, I rarely read a legal or insurance document where there appears to any real intent to communicate. The language is a device used by power parties to expedite their hidden agendas.

    That’s life these days.

    I am on the run , so I hope these words do set out the points clearly. The molehill may truly be a mountain.

    Thanks for listening


    PS a small aside what is Woj trying to say with the gender remark? I am a little pedantic about the smallest points.

  30. “Okay, I am 12. Shocker huh? But, I do know that a myriad of people try to use copious amounts of large words without completely understanding the definition of the morpheme. Therefore , amidst using the edict now what the hell you are phrasing.”

    Actually it’s not a shocker at all. What you said makes no sense– you should probably stop stringing together random words.

  31. Not any more Woj. I ordered three 16oz bottles online and had them flown in from Peru today. The doctors said it would last a year. Must use the prescribed dosage as too much has lead to rare cases of multi- functional internal doctrines. Of course, this also has serious far-reaching intergalactic implications.

  32. While many people misuse words it is important to note that many people do not know enough words. Take for instance people who inappropriately use “who” when “whom” is appropriate (e.g., “According to who?”). Other times pretentious words are utilized that have a similar meaning to their layperson counterpart (e.g., “contusion” for bruise).

    As for accusing people using certain words for not, “being themselves”, they are being themselves, which are people who enjoy using “big” words! Even if a person is a dumb hick it’s important not to appear as one so as to maximize one’s apparent credibility.

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the GRE, GMAT, and other standardizes tests that contain many “big” words.

  33. Wow all you people are LAME! Because you guys are ALL using bigo words! who cares how anybody sounds as long as people know what you’re saying then it’s all good and gravey.

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