Why using big words can make you look stupid

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I was doing an editing shift on a national when some copy dropped into my inbox from a regular columnist – not a professional writer, but a guy who could certainly string a sentence together. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph.


Because it was crammed with complex language,  jargon and obscure metaphors.

So I did what any busy editor would do – I rephrased it and sent it back to him to check.

I received the following email* in return:

Dear Janet,

I do not agree with your changes. Not only does the new version trivialise the subject matter, but you’ve taken out my joke, and quite frankly, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written.

If you are not willing to run my version, I’m afraid I can’t consent to it being published.


While we had to agree to disagree on his definition of ‘funny,’ after a series of grumpy emails, he agreed to my changes. But the episode was a reminder of one of the most common writing mistakes: unnecessary use of ‘big words’.

What’s wrong with big words then?

Good writing is not about using the biggest, cleverest words you can think of. It’s about using language to communicate ideas in a clear, accessible way.  Which means choosing short, simple words – every time.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adapt your writing to suit different audiences. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you should use more complex language in copy (or pitches or press releases) for broadsheet newspapers or ‘highbrow’ magazines.

Readers of upmarket publications are just as busy as everyone else. When they’re reading their newspaper over breakfast or on their commute to work, they don’t want an extract from a textbook – they want a quick snapshot of what’s going on in the world. Use overcomplicated language and readers will soon lose interest in what you have to say.

Can big words really make you look stupid?

And as this research from Princetown University shows, using long words can make you seem less intelligent than those who stick with basic vocabulary. Participants in the study were shown samples of essays with varying levels of linguistic complexity (which is exactly the kind of phrase you should avoid, by the way). They rated the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language as higher than those who penned more complex works.

So if you find yourself using words and phrases like these (collected from the ‘press release’ folder in my inbox):

  • exponential
  • strategic direction
  • autonomy
  • pertinent
  • funding streams
  • collaboration
  • interventions
  • superfluous
  • provision
  • individuals  (I mean, what’s wrong with ‘people’?)


Think again.

Ask yourself if there is a simpler word or phrase you can use.

And before you go, do take a minute to share with me any unnecessary big words you see people using. What words would you ban? What would you replace them with? Leave a comment in the box below…

*some details have been changed


  • I loathe the word ‘outcomes’. What’s wrong with ‘results’? ‘Stewardship’ is another word which I would happily edit out in all but a very few circumstances. And I never fail to feel deflated when I see the word ‘incentivise’.

  • As a young journalist in the 1970s, I returned from the Coroner’s Court and set about writing my story. I asked a senior colleague: “How to you spell haemorrhage ?” Without looking up he replied: “b-l-e-e-d-i-n-g”. I’ve never forgotten the lesson.

  • Ooh yes – ‘stewardship’ is a killer Matt.

    Great story Stuart – I shall share that with my journalism students!

  • Just finished reading this, and I turn back to my email. This is the first sentence of the message at the top of my inbox: “Today, InfoVista announced Australian carrier Vertel is leveraging its backhaul planning and network optimization solution, Mentum Ellipse, to overcome its operational efficiency and design accuracy challenges.”

  • Completely agree; why build barriers when you’re competing for attention? Jargon-wise, one journalist suggested to me that some people form the structure of their article with a ‘random cliche generator’ and personalise from there! And just as we seemed to latch on to a ‘cool’ word when we were children and used it constantly (my son currently says ‘decent’ about anything remotely acceptable) my clients are now saying ‘onboarding’ almost every time they call me. Why?

  • This is one of my favourites – required urgent edit: “An often overlooked phenomenon of recent times is as the shipping line invests in larger vessels it creates a consolidating effect when customer’s containers land. This coupled with pressure at quays and equipment costs for lines has meant that the hauliers ability to persuade our customers to smooth the volumes across the 24/7 window has reduced. This consequentially creates a paradox that the resulting ‘hump in the middle’ of the week gives us two problems.” Painful.

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