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Why trying to sound smarter can make you seem dumb

Think using big words makes you sound smarter? Think again.

If I had to pick one grammatical blunder that annoys me more than any other it would be the mangling of direct objects in an attempt to sound smarter. More specifically, how some people will use "I' incorrectly, as in, "My grandfather left his money to her and I." One of my elementary school teachers seared into my head an easy technique for checking this kind of construction-remove the first direct object phrase (her and) then see if the sentence makes sense. In this case it would be "My grandfather left his money to I." Of course, this is not correct--the word "I" should be "me."

But I see and hear that construction all the time--on scripted television shows, on the news, everywhere. Why? My only guess is that students who try to use "me and him" as subjects of a sentence are either smacked by their grammar teachers or ridiculed openly as hicks so they learn pretty quickly not to do it. But then they overcompensate and try to use "I" as a direct object when it shouldn't be.

I also do a lot of editing in my line of work. I am constantly seeing "hundred dollar words" used in place of smaller, simpler words that mean the same thing (utilize instead of use, possesses instead of has) in an attempt to sound smarter. This practice actually has the opposite effect for the reader, according to one study. Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, took a handful of writing samples and used a thesaurus to replace the simple words with needlessly flowery ones-a practice he said he'd seen used quite often by techies and business people.

The result? As the grandiosity and complexity of the language increased, the judges' estimation of the intelligence of the authors decreased.

So are you guilty of this? Have you seen this in others? What are some of the worst offenders of the "trying to sound smart" way of communicating that you've seen?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

254 comments
tedhu
tedhu

Keep your paragraphs short. No more than 2 to at most 4 sentences. Focus on one idea per paragraph and no more. Tactically, simple rules of thumb help tremendously. Avoid using "be" whenever possible. Adverbs and adjectives are insidious. Use big words judiciously to drive home an important point. Big words require extra effort to parse and understand. Don't waste that time unless it's worth it. Enough said.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

since I started watching the *Britcoms* on National PUBLIC television. I find, though, a wide variety of dialects, some of which are virtually unintelligible to me, and apparently some other Brits. But the variations in spelling come to mind, many of which show up often on this blog. So what's correct here is wrong across the Pond. Where's the room for standardization there?

jpierre603
jpierre603

I was taught and truly believe that a true sign of intelligence is being able to take the most complicated of subjects, and speak of them in the simplest of language.

rjluvkc
rjluvkc

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

jsaubert
jsaubert

There have been many times in my life that I've been accused of throwing out "big words" for no reason. And I will be the first to admit that there are times that I do needlessly use an oversized word (or phrase even!) when a nice monosyllabic word would have been just as good. However, the majority of the time I get questioned on why I use a more complex word instead of simpler word it's that the simpler word is not the "best" word for the job. Sometimes it comes down to the connotation of a word vs. it's denotation. If a simpler word has to many connotations that are wrong for the situation the more complex, but precise, word is what I'm going to use. Then there is the giant well of misused or misunderstood words. I remember really getting into an argument with an editor at my college paper about the word "trope" and how "clich??" was a more recognizable word. Except that trope and clich?? don't mean the same thing even though a lot of folks think that they do. But that being said if people can't figure out what you're taking about they might just floccinaucinihilipilificate everything you write. ^_^

dcolbert
dcolbert

If we live and learned in America, then we invariably speak American, not English as we claim.

Tuura
Tuura

I watched a presentation which was otherwise quite good, the presenter had also dressed corporate, was a fairly good speaker, but the presentation was grouped under headings of 1st principle, 2nd principle etc. except every time it was spelled "principal." I could not help being distracted, waiting for the next principal to trot on screen, nor thinking the speaker was less intelligent, perhaps not stupid but definitely I would have rated him higher in my mind if he had spelled the word correctly. I don't see spelling as superfluous, nor grammar even if there are grammar nazis that do pick on poor split infinitives like it was an actual rule. In case of the said principle vs principal the meaning of the word is changed, obscuring the meaning the speaker tries to get across, so it does interfere with communication. There are other common ones like their / there, your / you're and while it may be obvious from the context it at least makes it slower for reader to get to the meaning. And let's face it, would you trust your case to a lawyer who advertises "Had an accident that was not you're fault?"

pfeiffep
pfeiffep

to me means that a particular person is holding a gun NOW Posses a gun to me means that a particular person owns a gun and not necessarily in the person's hands. In this case the 2 words convey different meanings .... Just my $.02

OurNewestMember
OurNewestMember

I agree with many others here: to get your point across, tailor your talk. But what if your thoughts simply take shape up in the million-dollar word clouds? Several others here have been indicted by their English professors for such offenses as inflated diction, labyrinthine syntax, and maybe even a lack of "idiomatic English expression" (The irony having to look up a phrase that means "common phrases, please"). Some will be patient enough to cope with such offenses. That's the good news. Not so good is that you'll work twice as hard to sound like everyone else...including those wanting to mimic the cerebral style you're abandoning!

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Try Old English: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/oldenglish.htm When I was a kid we weren't allowed to use ain't. We did anyway and now it is in the dictionary. The lingo will adjust according to "accepted" usage. That doesn't mean accepted by grammar instructors, that means accepted by those who use it. Ya just gotta go with the flow man!

caroseed
caroseed

The tech world does seem to be obsessed with jargon. I think the most overused word I come across on a regular basis has to be 'solution'. In most cases you could just get rid of it altogether and the phrase or sentence would still make sense. It's got to the point where going for a piss would probably be described by someone out there as a 'toileting solution'. I manage Microsoft's cloud computing group on LinkedIn (http://linkd.in/nAX9S4) and it's a constant battle to keep things jargon-free - a battle I don't always win....

MartySmartyPants
MartySmartyPants

Business has always used jargon, whether to confuse others or make their product sound important but, since Mr T B'liar, politicians have been trying to sound like business people. This is when phrases such as the awful "going forward" replaced "in the future". I even heard a politician state that "... we need to find better ways to securitize the data.". Securitize! Securitize! What's wrong with "secure"? Easier to say and you don't sound such a pillock! Script writers are no better. To try and make a character sound like one of the 'common' people and to 'get down with the yoof', the writers misheard Londoners saying "should 'ave". When we say it, it sounds like 'shu-dove'. They must have thought we were saying "should of" but we aren't. To late. Up with this I will not put! PS. While I'm here, can I point you in the direction of this: http://belowthesalt.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/avoiding-cliches-like-the-plague/

dogknees
dogknees

From a well known but unnamed source. "This research was created to help IT and business leaders compare the investment level of their enterprise IT spending with that of like industry organizations." Now would someone like to explain the difference between "the investment level of their enterprise IT spending" and simply "the level of their enterprise IT spending"? In other words, what does the word "investment" mean?

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

People pushing a pedal make car go. Rockets go up. They go real fast. TV makes pictures you can watch.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...surprisingly, seems to be hard on my eyes, to the point of getting a headache. I assume the work of scanning each word to determine the letter content produces eyestrain. This would definitely inhibit my desire to read. I'm probably not as smart as "Cmabrigde", but their conclusion doesn't hold up. While I may read the word as a a whole (word recognition), my mind wants to verify that my first impression is the correct one, and seems to rescan the word to assure its meaning. If "sceince" doesn't look right to me, I may go through a number of similar words ("seance", scenic" et c.) and use the *most likely* word for the context. I'll bet the professors at Cambridge would find error with misspelled words.

jos.paglia
jos.paglia

As a research goal, I would expect that the spelling in the above has to be "correct enough", in as much as all the correct letters need to be present, if not in the right order (other than the first and last letters). Grossly misspelled words, or obviously incorrect substitutions (re: homonyms or homophones) will impact meaning and comprehension. This says more about the brain's ability to perform pattern recognition than it does about effective communication.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

We had a real englishman working here yrs ago. We could hardly understand each other. Eventually we were able to bridge the language barrier. lol

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Would you like to visit a customer service organization with a sign behind the counter reading "Military personnel in uniform will be serviced on priority"? It got my attention because where I grew up, the noun 'service' was different from the verb 'service'. The noun was something you expected at a restaurant or store; the verb was what the bull (or inseminator) did to the cow. I had no desire to be first in that line...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Possesses is always going to sillier, because owns is shorter and clearer. To be in possession of a gun, however, has a meaning different from both has and owns, because it says nothing of ownership or immediate embrandishment (HA!), but only about documented access to the mentioned tool.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

They lead the flow where the want it to go.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Every technology has its jargon, its made up of foreshortened "Big" words for the most part and its purpose is speed and accuracy. Techies do need to realize that they naturally speak a foreign language. In the course of the workday most of them interact only with each other. Carrying on a quasi-technical conversation with laymen, outsiders or 'Furriners" takes special effort to avoid confusion on both sides.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

as a translator these are the ones I dread. I am supposed to know if it's grade A nonsense, or nonsense with a target jargon equivalent...

JJFitz
JJFitz

People pushing on a pedal make a car go. How many people pushing on a pedal make the car go? Which pedal should these people push on? Should they push on the brake pedal, the clutch pedal, or the gas pedal? Should these people push the pedal with their hands or feet? Consider using the more accurate verb "step". Stepping on the gas pedal makes a car go. They go real fast. General rule of thumb: If you can substitute the adverb "very", you should use "really" instead of "real". Hence, They go really fast. - Conan the Grammarian

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The human mind doesn't need a perfect protocol. That means that there is no strong conservative force to uphold the protocol. Strict adherence to the protocol is a needless expense, leading inevitably to continuous mutation of the protocol. Only certain things are important enough to make us be careful about spelling... for example "bunny" is closely related to the word "coney" (both refer to rabbit or the meat of such), and they used to have the same first letter (the same initial consonant sound, to be precise). That turned out to be too close to another and very important word... so the less important word was changed, in order to preserve the sanctity of the more important word. You do the maths ;)

jsaubert
jsaubert

Cue one more thing in my growing list of annoyances. Accent marks are not arbitrary, they are part of the word and there are reasons for them. As we move into the digital world a lot of little nuances in language get lost and that makes me a sad Jane. I run into forums or blogs or any kind of text input that don't support "special characters" all the time. Not that long ago I was helping a friend plan a wedding and the main message board he was on would give ?s for characters as well. Every time I had to type "fiancee" or "fiance" I think the ghost of my grandmother twitched a little. On a side note I tried to edit my comment and tried every trick to make the right character appear buy no dice, so I'm letting the ?s stand as it is.

jos.paglia
jos.paglia

Well, seeing as there are some ??? at the end of the word, I would expect that the "e" with the "accent aigu" (acute accent) did not render properly... "clich" Did that^^ render? EDIT. Nope. It displays in the preview, but fails when posting...

JJFitz
JJFitz

When I asked a Brittish colleage if she had heard back from the vendor yet, she replied, "Not a dicky bird." Had I not been a Monty Python fan, I would not have had a clue what she meant.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

And it's a proud dialect, born of Irish and French. If we could speak something else, some of us would!

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Strap him to the counter and bring in the old Angus! They must have been some kind of serious antimilitarists... the other alternative meanings of either having a going over by a mechanic or receiving an unwanted legal document aren't exactly enticing, either.

pfeiffep
pfeiffep

Just using the original post's wording. Possess is a good word, just used many times "incorrectly" So do " Nations own or *possess* nuclear weapons?" or He possesses or owns a keen wit.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Back in school, can you remember a time when somebody said something really "stupid" that became a new catch phrase? At least in your school? I can. Usually not the leader that started that particular branch. You CAN argue that the leaders "hopped on" and drove it, usually into the ground but... My point is ALL of us are part of the flow. Each of us make decisions everyday that affect the "flow" microscopically. When enough people are going the same way, the flow changes. Sure some leaders are themselves instruments for the change. IMO most leaders are people who are quick to perceive the change and catch the wave.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

It is a self-regulating system, any interference will mess it up. If we feel that language has been in steady decline for the last 100 years, perhaps we should examine what's been different for that 100 years. Schools, that's what. A hundred years ago, the majority of children received only modest schooling, and their language was subjected to only modest meddling (mostly stuff like not using the more effective words where the vicar could hear it). Teachers do not understand language. They do not know how it or why it changes or how or why it remains the same. All they can do is meddle with it. And that causes the language to respond in unpredictable ways.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Guilty as hell. How about some roast cunny on a stick?

santeewelding
santeewelding

"Maths", as in, mathematics, when arithmetic on your fingers would suffice.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

To make "special" characters show up right - on these and many other boards - you have to write them up in html. An e with a grave accent (an e from germany, perhaps) is written as "& e grave ;" minus the quotes and spaces : è Similarly you write "& e acute ;" for é. The bonus is you can then have some fun with it. If you remember that "uml" is the html abbreviation for umlaut, you can make some fünkÿ löökïng chäräctërs.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Bog in itself, the swampy meaning, is from scots. It's related to the english word "bow", because the ground is "bendy" in a swamp, doonchanoo? However, the bog I mentioned is a shortening for boghouse, which seems to be an english invention, using an argot verb "to bog = to defecate". Situation normal, all bogged up! ;) I had to look up argot too... it's a secret vocabulary peculiar to a certain group... so, it's some group's jargon. Argot sounds cooler though. Argot argot argot.

dcolbert
dcolbert

That sounds like it must be Scottish. :)

JJFitz
JJFitz

whenever I think of the word "watercloset", I picture the Three Stooges opening a door and a huge wave comes rolling out.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

That confused him for a while.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Drives them nuts that we say we're going to the bathroom, the rest-room and the toilet. The first two are simply nonsensical (when we neither intend on taking a bath, nor would we generally consider having a nap in there, unless we were thoroughly pissed, which isn't angry, at all), the last is approaching vulgar. Then of course, there is "fanny".

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The sign was hanging in the military personnel office at one of my USAF assignments. Before I left (and at my request), they changed it to read "Military personnel in uniform will receive priority service."

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The USA has a lot of nuclear weapons OR The USA is in possession of numerous nuclear devices For me, at least, one choice feeds a whole row of other choices - by choosing "possess" over "have", I must also choose "numerous" over "a lot". Style doesn't mess around.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

but to me leaders are the ones leading the pack. In my experience they are not always or even often innovators.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

But I suppose it depends on what you choose to follow.