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

By Mary

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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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126 Responses to “Big Words Make You Sound Smart, Don’t They?”

  • Kareem

    Well, I see many of you have posted that using bigger words makes you sound smarter. Actually, it depends on the situation. If I wanted to describe John, I would say he is smart. That is used as a description of who John is, like an aspect of his personality. If I said that John was an intellectual, then I would be describing a characteristic of John.

    It is really hard to explain, so basically, you should just use the word that would sound best, and most fluent. You don’t want to have a sentence like this:

    I am incapable of comprehending the dialects in which were just spoken.
    When all you are getting across is:

    “I don’t understand what you just said.”

    I know it sounds like I’m rambling and I tend to do this a lot, but basically, I would say it’s just preference and fluidity that will alter what and where you insert more intelligent language.

  • gil

    There is something to be admired on a sesquipedalian.

  • Terry McNeil

    There is a sense of decency implied in open and fair talks. I hereby request censorship by the editors of words or phrases that do not adhere to this hallmark of civility.

    “Words resting and applied in the wrong hands are more dangerous to the human condition than any arsenal of weapons ever assembled by man” TIME…the Book, 2011 Copyrighted Material.

  • rastjacks01

    “The more we learn the more acutely we are aware of our ignorance.” Yonkers Middle High School.

  • MartenFerret

    “If you have to go get a dictionary to see what “pedantic” means, I have made my point!”

    Key word being ‘if’; I didn’t require a dictionary to understand ‘pedantic’, neither should anyone advanced passed fourth grade. 🙂

  • Sam Graham

    Yes, using “big words” does make you sound more intelligent while speaking or typing. But for most of the comments above and below, so would a spell-check.

  • chox

    When writing or communicating in general there are literally countless ways to say the same thing. Especially when you include metaphorical and symbolic phrases. It kind of depends on whether you regard a big idea as being more creative useful or intelligent than a big word expressing something mundane. Maths is a good example. Mathematicians try to prove theorems, generally, in the most simple, uncomplicated, direct and obvious way. They are generally quite smart. Good writers aim primarily to express some meaning. Some idea or object by translating the substance of their thought into the words of their chosen language. Using a word, that is so obscure that no-one understands it, that forces the audience to pull out the 10,000 page dictionary to decipher its meaning is in many way similar to speaking another language. Language is in a sense living. Language changes, words come in and out of use. Sounds and meanings are created and morphed everyday. We are exposed to language each in a completely unique way. The best communicator is the one who conveys their message with the greatest rate of success, period. Whether it is with a one syllable word or an eight syllable word is arbitrary. Some big ideas with one syllable. Love, God, child, life, death, war, idea, sex, think, word, write. Every one of those words could be replaced by very large words or by thousands upon thousand of words in the form of novels to explore and fully delineate their meaning. Expression isn’t a competition. A painting isn’t measured simply by it’s surface area.

  • death metal

    Here’s my two cents, anyone who is stupid enough to believe that a few syllables will change my opinion of them, is stupid enough to believe that they do in fact sound smarter. Now any fag with a vendetta and a link to dictionary.com could have stretched that out into a 3000 word essay, but that would have just proven one thing, it would have proven that said author is just tryin a litlle too hard. If you truly are a person of above average reasoning (true intelligence, any moron can memorize any number of facts) then perhaps you would realize that the oxygen wasted is worth far less that the felling you get when you hear a lot of oohs and aahs.

  • venqax

    @death metal: I think you have this backwards. Using the proper word– it doesn’t have to be “big”– actually saves lengthiness. If you have the right word, it saves a sentence or a clumsy paragraph having to explain your intentions.

    “The population was reduced by ten percent”, vs. “the population was decimated”. From 7 words down to 4 if you know “decimated” means reduced by ten percent. “She stood akimbo in the doorway” vs. “She stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and her arms bowed out”. Wow! That’s 6 instead of 16 if you know that standing with hands on the hips and elbows out like a bow is what “akimbo” means. I actually heard someone describe something as “whitish black”. Is gray a big word, too? Or, even more worisome, does someone who would actually say “whitish black” even know what whitish or black mean? Could be green for all I know. It has more letters than gray does.

    Your fictional person might take 3000 words in their essay instead of 2000 because they don’t know ENOUGH “big words”. And why do you think anyone would be concerned about your opinion of them?

  • marcus

    when you mentioned the word “pedantic” I immediately googled it and then read “If you have to go get a dictionary to see what “pedantic” means, I have made my point!” So your point was definitely made.

  • phill

    Sometimes complex words are needed to accurately articulate and describe in detail what the writer is wanting to convey.

    Can I also point out the writer of this article did not use the word pedantic correctly, it simply does not make sense using that word to describe people whom use “big words” presumbily to make themselves seem clever.

  • Kosh

    I’m an ESL leaner, and a bit foolish I think. I used to look up the Xxx-English dictionary to find the word I think I needed, because I thought “small” word is not precise. of course that made a lot of jokes.

  • xixihaha567

    Do not quit blogging. Its nice to read such a nice post.

  • justice

    Woj, shame on your language! Using the word nigger show what lack of not only intelligence but your lack of respect for others – shame on you. We blog, we fight, we disrepect, each other and yet we Americans claim to be the best. We are such hypocrites! Grow up people and act like your parents taught you something!!!

  • Jini

    Honestly speaking, I speak couple different languages and English is not my first tongue, I have got a causing of mine who speaks couple languages and is well educated as well. I do hate when we are having a conversation and he winds up using big words, why bother when you can use simple words. I do applause if you use big words when writing a letter or a book but still to me writing in a simple way is the best.

  • John

    Hmm, I agree as well. Shallow and pedantic.

  • Roland

    this is the first time of me being on this site an I started reading all of it I understand most of it in my mine but the words that you guy’s used on this sit its just wow:) but ok my name is Roland J beland an I been writing a book about my daily life evey day of my life an my pass but sometime when I write I use the same later all the time . an for me its hard to learn new one’s when you have to deal with darma avery day of my life an when I go to sleep. but I don’t understand how can I learn new words in my daily life with out having any darma . my brine can’t take it any more of it an I don’t want to be one dumd men in this world today. so I am just asking can someone on this earth to give me the right works so I can get this book done. an I been writing for like 1year an 4moths an its all bye hand. I hope you guy’s understand my tpying on this site just help me out if you can :):):)

  • Al

    The problem ain’t people who use big werds to sound smart, it’s people who use one syllable words and blunt, subject-verb-object sentences to show everyone how ‘hard-core’ and ‘authentic’ they are. Buy a dictionary, Bukowski. Read a real book, one without pictures. Face it. You can’t stay twelve years old forever.

  • Okello

    Don’t let others rent space in your mind.

  • David

    “Key word being ‘if’; I didn’t require a dictionary to understand ‘pedantic’, neither should anyone advanced passed fourth grade.”

    MartenFerret, this is a pretty ignorant thing to say. I guarantee you that most people would be unable to define the word pedantic.

  • jonathan

    What’s wrong with you people, is English the only language in the world, that we should be cautious in writing or speaking?

    Tell me, if speaking in english makes you intellectual, then think of this: “Why Americans are always searching for a Miss Universe”?

    Can other galaxy send their representatives on earth? or maybe it is more appropriate to ask “are there any delegates coming from other galaxies”?

    In that case, Americans need an Alien interpreter.

    Sorry for my english I am not an American. But my point is, can you Americans speak and understand my native language fluently?

    Why you are laughing to that chinese speaking in english? In my opinion, it is not about the “language” but already about the “racist” here.

    It is too arrogant for you to say that having a better english vocabulary can make you intellectual…because there are many many intelligent men around the world dont even know how to speak english.

  • It is down to you

    What is strange is that I was using the word pedantic without any formal qualifications. I am sorry but I love big creative words, when I write I can really go into one, however, I do not speak these words in my daily life. For an adult like me without any formal qualifications it really is a buzz to adapt to words that a person like me should not have any concept about. The English language is a broad continuum of words, use it, do not abuse it and for me abusing it is neglecting to exploit what man has been manipulating and formulating for centuries. The English language is at the tip of our tongue or in my case our fingertips begging us to exploit every ounce of it. I think the original blogger has been confused by those who try to use the English language in a patronising manner and forgot about those who truly love words and the play of words genuinely and want to use elaborate words in a friendly manner for their own personal growth.

  • G

    To Johnathan

    I am half chinese and half white. That being said It really annoys me how defensive chinese people tend to be. I understand both cultures to a certain degree, but why are you so annoyed? Just because someone was laughing at someone who happen to be Chinese, does that necesarily mean that they were being rascist? The coment that you said that about was laughing at them for thinking it was socially impressive to only know only English. Does that not sound a little… funny i guess for lack of a better word. People from China tend to be more easily offended by things in a negative sort commentation about anything relating to their country. Keep in mind we are in ‘merica, not China. There is no censorship, only freedom of speach.

    Im just kidding i just like to argue

  • G

    also the article is about “sounding smart” not “being smart”

  • Jonathan

    To Mr. G,

    “Sounding Smart” (if not “Being Smart”) means “Prentending to be Smart”?

    That’s too pathetic right?

    FYI, I am not a Chinese… and yes it was very annoying. So what, if that Chinese knows only english? believe it or not in my country you can also find people do not know how to speak our native language but only english.

    However, it seems you did not get my point and I don’t know why… maybe you only want to argue because you only want to be “sound smart”..like the way I defined it. LOL!

    Just kidding too.

  • Clare

    I agree with this article, and yet I also agree with allison on the last thing she said, “Then agen i also agree with some of the comments above, if you dont use words that people cant understand then they wont ever learn the meaning of them and stick to the restricted vocabulary that they have.”
    I’m sick of all the same words being used over and over again throughout society. I’m sick of terms like ‘awesome’ and ‘epic’ getting use to comment on a pencil. If something is ‘awesome’, you fall to your knees, lost in a state of ‘awe’. If something is ‘epic,’ it’s heroic, or even just a story.
    Then, there’s texting. That’s going to the extreme, and I’m fairly certain nobody actually writes storys with it, but if I’m ever on Facebook and someone from school chats to me, it’s always ‘hi’, ‘lol’, ‘jk’, ‘omg’ and ‘ttyl’. I remember once a friend said ‘lol’, and I typed, “Did you really laugh out loud?”. Three minutes later, he typed “no”.
    At any rate, back to my first paragraph, I agree that it’s bad to make yourself look smart(especially if you can’t understand the words), and yet, it’s also bad to stick to the short and simple. If you can’t understand a word, ask, or even look it up. I just found out what ‘sentient’ means this morning, and I’m already 15. I should learned that awhile back. No shame in asking the meaning of ‘arbitrarily’ or ‘albuminurophobia’. 🙂

  • Jonathan

    If you are only using the “big words” in writing, that’s fine. Because there’s a chance for your readers to look up the word they dont understand.

    However, if you are speaking in public or in the business meeting or presentation, using big words is not good, because not all your listeners can understand what you mean to say. Unless, you will inform your listeners in advance to bring dictionary with them, and you have to pause for each “big words” to enable them to look up in the dictionary. I am very sure that you are just wasting your time and you might lose all your customers as well. 🙂

    Finally, using big words just to “sound smart” (not being smart according to Mr. G) will just embarass you when you encounter a person who is “really smart”.

    Hope you understand my point.

  • Wilson

    Some of you people left some awful, spiteful remarks. If you don’t want to learn grammar, get off of this site. I actually like learning. If you don’t, you don’t have to.

  • Somniferous

    Big Words…Smartness:
    True many try to adventurously inject complex words, on occasion counter to the intended messages.
    There’s an equally strong fallacy here though; different people’s mind are structured differently….some artistic…others highly logic….others sentimental in nature etc….and therefore may use language differently.
    Many people look down upon people who r inclined to complex language subcousciously-as though those ‘verbose’ people were trying to ‘look down’ upon the audience.
    I get that accusation on many occasions even though my language use is really not something I ‘enforce upon others’ deliberately-that’s simply how my mind projects out what I’ve seen or experienced…
    When u come across an exceptional artist then start telling him…”well ur trying to be like Da Vinci but U never will!”…Sounds almost senseless….that’s the feeling I get by analogy.

  • Woj

    Thank you Somniferous for your wonderful contribution to this discussion.

  • jonathan

    @Wilson

    In my understanding, this site isn’t talk about grammar, is it?

  • jonathan

    Sorry, I mean this article.

  • Marissa

    Yes, a rich vocabulary is often an indicator of higher intelligenc, or at least a greater ability to express oneself more precisely and eloquently. Most “big words” exist because at least SOMEBODY found them useful at some point, yes?

    Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand that you can’t fake being smart. Awkwardly placed “big words” amidst equally lackluster grammatical structures are just painful to read. Good writing is that in which the reader can forget about/enjoy the writing itself and focus on the content. Like how when you read a book, you don’t pay attention to the paper or the binding unless it causes a problem, e.g. pages fall out.

    You’d be surprised what passes for a “big word” nowadays. I always am. And people go to memorize vocab words by repeating the definition in their vocab book, but they don’t learn the nuances that allow them to actually implement their new vocabulary. Which irks me tremendously. The only way to REALLY learn vocabulary is to READ. A lot. And a basic understanding of Latin roots can be quite helpful, at least for English

    Just my rambling opinions.

    I’m 16, are you surprised? Probably not.

  • Tiffany

    hey jessie thats a good point I think I’ll use more bigger words so my aunt will stop bugging me all the time unfortunately I have to live with her everything she talks to me about is DETRIMENTAL…

  • Woj

    “I’m 16, are you surprised? Probably not.”

    Not really. You were obviously a kid who was trying too hard to to come off as an intellectual and articulate individual.

  • Stephen Thorn

    @Marissa: I agreed with your post of Jan. 7, 2012. Sometimes a particular “big” word is the best choice. Of course one may describe a mountain as “big” or “tall” and get the point across, but so many other words (ex. huge, immense, insurmountable, sky-reaching, gargantuan, or Olympian [as in Mount Olympus, and no, I didn’t need to grab a thesaurus to find any of those words — just pulled ’em out of my memory]) convey a better image and meaning.

    The analogy you used about a book falling apart was good and apt. Yes, a “big” word in the midst of a pile of basic grade-school-level writing stands out like a black beetle in a plate of white rice…and in a similarly unpleasant way.

    I also agreed with you about the state of modern language. I see English being dumbed-down and neutered all the time and it makes me sad, as well as apprehensive for the future of written literature. The fact that you, at a so-youthful 16, see this also gives me some hope for that future.

  • Stephen Thorn

    @Marissa: Also, can you tell me the size of your tits?

  • Dilan

    Well, i guess you guys are my mentors, honestly, i dont know alot of big words but like wise, i realy concur with those who think using a dictionary is beneficial to our capricious society because what are they for if we cant use and apply them?…you guys are super intelletuals and fastidious when it comes to the use of big words.

  • Dilan

    If theres a word which has become common in my country zambia is “ironic” …in what way should this word be used? because it realy sounds insidious and dubeous when people use it…most of the high school friends i had, called me a philosopher over simple words like “ecstatic, thrill, prepostorious, interminable,alacrity obnoxious, cordial “and many more common words which they called big words. Likewise, i might sound sarcastic and monotonous but i think there can never be a thrilling dictionary without big words…

  • Dilan

    Thanx woj, what can i say when am not good in english,but who knows knows maybe i will also learn. meanwhile, i was just trying to convey my opinion but i thank God for the way he has created me…likewise, may God bless you Woj.

  • Dilan

    Thanks for your generosity woj, i guess i will have to stick to your advice…

  • Dilan

    I live in a christian nations and moreover i dont believe in insults …Change for the better woj because you never know what tomorrow holds…be wise my friend because HELL is there for people like you..you fool…

  • Woj

    Dilan is the spawn of apes

  • Woj

    Dilan likes kool-aid and wings.

  • Woj

    Dilan eats his own shit.

  • Woj

    Dilan would trade his children for a piece of fried chicken.

  • Woj

    Dilan, I always thought trailer trash couldn’t afford internet, how do you?

  • Dilan

    Thanxs, wat can i say? with such ridiculous comments, i would advice you to see a psychiatrist for own benefit…you realy suck, you know what, u dont feed me and neither do u pay my rentals, and about the internet u fool, life has changed and by the way man is no longer judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…. U are destroying the image for the posterity of your country…i wont blame you but i will blame the father of your children to be…

  • Woj

    Dilan, you can’t speak English so stop trying. I can barely understand what your dumb niggger-ass is trying to say.

  • Dilan

    Woj, have you taken leave of your senses? Because you sound like bats in the belfery, you are undoubtedly getting on my last nerve… Likewise, better flatter a fool than fight him, this page is not an institution of insults, anyway, i guess a leopard cannot change its spots, you are no great shakes… Lets leave this page for an erudite companion, let not our insults turn into a threat for those who wish like commenting.. And my apolodge to everyone. Please forgive me for my errors, may the good Lord bless you in as much as you take a bookish view of life.. Meanwhile, forgive me Woj… (RATED NO REPLY).

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