Monday, October 1, 2012

Grandiloquent Erudite Vernacular

I've mentioned in previous posts how the best authors use simple language to convey their opposed to verbose, pretentious wording designed to sound impressive.  I've had many a distressing discussion with certain students and postdocs who insisted that their abstruse writing, sprinkled with many multiple-syllable words, was superior to a more straightforward approach using simpler language.  I always argued that they were not fooling anyone and were likely annoying and confusing the reader (and journal editors and reviewers) with their convoluted constructions.  I knew that I was annoyed.

I came across an article containing evidence that stating familiar ideas in pretentious language is viewed as a sign of low intelligence and is less credible than a simpler message.  The article, authored by Danny Openheimer, is entitled: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly".  The paper (seen here) starts out by quoting from Strunk and White to "omit needless words" and Daryl Bem's guidelines for a psychology journal submission that "the first step towards clarity is writing simply".  The paper by Openheimer describes a series of experiments in which the complexity of the text is manipulated, and the readers' impression of the author's intelligence is assessed.  There was a negative relationship between text complexity and judged intelligence, even when various factors were controlled.  The conclusion was that the more simply and clearly you write, the more intelligent you are judged to be.

Two-thirds of 110 undergraduates answered yes to the question, ‘When you write an essay, do you turn to the thesaurus to choose words that are more complex to give the impression that the content is more valid or intelligent?’ This behavior is apparently a reflection of the widespread myth (at least among students) that using more complicated words in their writing will make their essays sound more credible.  And I can attest that this idea is very difficult to eradicate once entrenched in the student's mind.  This paper, however, might help to counter this myth so that students are more receptive to their adviser's suggestion that clarity, brevity, and simplicity are what a writer should be striving for.

Having worked in the Federal government, I've probably seen more than the usual amount of convoluted writing.  There are a bunch of amusing examples of before and after government writing at  Here's one example, which won the No Gobbledygook Award:


"Section 301-2.5(b) Indirect-route or interrupted travel.

When a person for his/her own convenience travels by an indirect route or interrupts travel by a direct route, the extra expenses shall be borne by him/her. Reimbursement for expenses shall be based only on such charges as would have been incurred by a usually traveled route. An employee may not use contract airline/rail passenger service provided under contract with the General Services Administration (see part 301-15, subpart B, or this chapter) for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. Additionally, an employee may not use a U.S. Government Transportation Request (GTR) (see section 301-10.2 of this chapter) or a contractor-issued charge card (see part 301-15, subpart C, of this chapter) for procurement of commercial carrier transportation services for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. An employee may, however, use contract airline/rail passenger service, as well as a GTR or contractor-issued charge card, for portions of travel that are authorized to be performed at Government expense. (See section 301-11.5(a) of this chapter regarding reimbursement claims for travel that involves an indirect route.)"


"Section 301.10.8 What is my liability if, for personal convenience, I travel or use an indirect route?

If you travel on government business by anything other than the most direct, least cost route available, you must pay for the added costs so the taxpayers don't."

Now if we can only convince science students that simple is better.....  Maybe we need a similar contest to the No Gobbledygook Award for improved science writing?

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