Language, Top Stories

Stupid Is as Stupid Writes

Most writing experts agree that “direct, declarative sentences with simple common words are usually best.”1 However, most undergraduates admit to intentionally using complex vocabulary to give the impression of intelligence to their readers. Does using complex vocabulary in writing actually increase the perception of higher author intelligence among readers? According to Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the answer is No.2 Oppenheimer’s 2006 article published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” effectively makes the case against needless complexity in writing. The paper includes five experiments: the first three show the negative influence of increased complexity on perceived author intelligence, and the latter two investigate the role of fluency (ease of reading) more generally on judgments about author intelligence.

Oppenheimer’s work provides valuable information on how to avoid the common pitfalls of trying to sound smart when writing. The research also provides an insightful framework to explore how needless complexity may be harming public perception at larger scales, such as the perception of academic journals and disciplines. In what follows, I will briefly outline the experiments and findings in Oppenheimer’s paper and apply them to academia to show how disciplines vary in the degree of unnecessary complexity. This complexity comes at a cost, and fields like gender studies are paying the price.

*     *     *

Experiment 1: Does Increasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

In the first experiment, Oppenheimer showed that using longer words causes readers to view the text and its author more negatively. Six personal statements for graduate admission in English Literature were taken from writing improvement websites that varied greatly in quality and content. Excerpts were taken from the six essays and three versions of each were prepared. Highly complex versions were made by replacing every noun, verb, and adjective with their longest respective entry in the Microsoft Office thesaurus. Moderately complex versions were made by only altering every third eligible word, and an original was left unchanged. Each of the 71 participants read one excerpt and decided whether or not to accept the applicant and to rate both the confidence in their decision and how difficult the passage was to understand.

The more complex an essay was, the less likely students were to accept the applicant regardless of the quality of the original. Interestingly, controlling for difficulty of reading nearly eliminated the relationship between complexity and acceptance. The opposite is not true, however, suggesting that differences in fluency are what cause the negative relationship between complexity and acceptance. Complex texts are rated poorly because they are hard to read.

Experiment 2: Is the Perceived Intelligence of the Author Affected by the Complexity of the Translation Used?

Even geniuses sound unintelligent when they use big words. Concerns about the word replacement algorithm in experiment one hurting the quality of the text due to imperfectly matched meanings led the author to a second, more natural test. One of two different translations of the first paragraph of Rene Descartes Meditation IV were given to 39 participants. Two independent raters agreed that one of the translations was considerably more complex despite comparable word counts. Participants read the text and rated both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand. In order to investigate the effects of a prior expectation of intelligence, half were told the author was Descartes and half were told it was an anonymous author.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher in the simple translation, whether or not they knew the author was Descartes. As in experiment 1, loss of fluency appeared to be the cause of poor ratings for the complex translation, but statistical significance was not reached for its mediating influence in this case.

Experiment 3: Does Decreasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

Have a big vocabulary? Dumbing it down with this method might improve your writing. A dissertation abstract from the Stanford sociology department with an unusual number of long words (nine or more letters) was selected for the experiment. A simplified version of the text was made by replacing every long word with its second shortest entry in the thesaurus. The 85 participants were instructed to read one of the abstracts and rate both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher and the difficulty of understanding lower in the simplified version. Again, fluency had the predicted effect, but failed to reach statistical significance. This supports experiment 1 by showing that a word replacement algorithm does not necessarily impair the quality of work and make it harder to understand. The message is clear—complex texts are harder to read and get rated more poorly.

Experiment 4: Does Any Manipulation that Reduces Fluency Reduce Intelligence Ratings?

This experiment is a compelling argument against using silly fonts (I’m looking at you, Comic Sans). Presenting text in a hard to read font is an established way of reducing fluency. The unedited version of the highest quality essay from the first experiment was given to 51 participants in one of two fonts: italicized “Juice ITC” or normal “Times New Roman.” See below for a comparison:

The participants were instructed to read the text and rate the author’s intelligence. All of the instructions and rating scales were written in the corresponding text to prevent readers from assuming the author had chosen the font, which could be taken as a hint about their intelligence.

Readers who received the “Juice ITC” version rated the author as less intelligent than those who read it in “Times New Roman.” This establishes the effect of fluency independent of complexity, and supports the idea that complex texts are rated poorly because they reduce fluency.

Experiment 5: Do Manipulations of Fluency Have the Same Effect if the Source of the Decreased Fluency is Obvious?

People tend to discount the role of fluency when it has an obvious source. For example, Tversky and Kahneman found that although people typically use fluency as a cue for estimating surname frequency, if they are in the presence of obvious causes for fluency (personal relevance, famous name) they stop using fluency and even overcompensate.3 To test this, 27 participants were given an unedited essay from experiment one that was either printed normally, or with low toner in the printer making it light, streaky, and hard to read. Readers were asked to decide if they would accept the applicant as well as rate the confidence of their decision and the author’s intelligence.

Participants who read low toner texts were more likely to recommend acceptance than those who read the normal version. They also rated the intelligence of the author more highly in the low toner condition. When the source of fluency is obvious, people become aware of their bias and overcorrect.

*     *     *

The implications of the first four experiments can be neatly summarized: “Keep it simple, stupid.” As experts have long recommended, you should use short, common words and easy to read fonts. Someone who makes good points, but relies on complex words and jargon to do so, likely pays a price in terms of the perceived quality of their work and mind. Reading Oppenheimer’s paper made me wonder if the same rules hold true on the broader scale of academic disciplines. If a field tends to use needlessly complex language more than other fields, is it viewed as less credible?

To test this hypothesis I set out to compare the complexity of the top journals from various fields to their perceived credibility using average word length as a proxy for complexity and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) as a proxy for credibility. Specifically, I chose to compare the top journal in astrophysics, biochemistry, sociology, and gender studies. To estimate word length I sampled the first five full articles from the latest issue of each journal and divided the number of characters by the word count. Each journal’s complexity score reflects the average word length of the five selected papers.

There was no relationship between SJR and complexity score (names of the journals and papers used for the analysis, as well as results, can be found here.) This could be for a number of reasons: the top journal of a field is not necessarily reflective of the field as a whole, average word length could be a bad proxy for complexity, SJR could be a bad proxy for credibility, small sample size, etc.

Or, could it be that I was confusing complexity with needless complexity?

The complexity score is similar for Gender and Society (5.5) and Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics (5.3), but is the difficulty of understanding for the underlying content the same? Almost certainly not. Previous research has developed a Hierarchy of the Sciences that uses objective bibliometric criteria to assess the “softness” of an academic field.4 Unsurprisingly, the ranks are as follows, from hardest to softest science: physical (physics, mathematics), biological-hard (molecular biology, biochemistry), biological-soft (plant and animal sciences, ecology), social (psychology, economics), and humanities (archaeology, gender studies). The authors state that as you progress from mathematics to humanities there is “a proportional loss of cognitive structure and coherence in their literature background.” In other words, Gender and Society uses equally complex language to describe “softer” phenomena. Therefore, the degree of needless complexity is higher than in similarly complex texts where the underlying difficulty of the concepts is greater.

The point is clarified by the following examples taken from papers analyzed for this article. Excerpt 1 comes from an abstract in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics,5 excerpt 2 comes from an abstract in Gender and Society.6

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy formation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The formation and growth of galaxies over time is connected to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological simulations has provided a new window into the statistical relationship between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification, James Messerschmidt provides a comprehensive and nuanced explanation of hegemonic masculinity, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

I applied the methodology of experiment 3 from Oppenheimer’s paper to both (simplified long words). Let’s see how they change.

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy creation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The creation and growth of galaxies over time is linked to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological models has provided a new window into the statistical link between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Powerful Maleness: Design, Redesign, and Expansion, James Messerschmidt provides a full and nuanced account of powerful maleness, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

In the first excerpt there were nine words that had nine or more letters, and four could be replaced with a shorter word without distorting the meaning. In the second excerpt there were more long words, despite the fact that the passage is much shorter (38 vs. 64 words). Of the 12 words that met the criteria in excerpt 2, nine of them could be replaced without altering the meaning. Therefore, the density of both long words and needlessly long words is higher in the second excerpt.

Does this needless complexity harm the public perception of gender studies? Yes. Good luck convincing laymen about the oppression of women using terms like “subalterneity” and “phallogocentrism.” It will be difficult to understand, and therefore judged negatively. Take, for example, a passage from one of the most influential works from arguably the most influential gender theorist, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” by Judith Butler.7 

When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.

The above is a reasonable argument for separate definitions of sex and gender that is totally obscured by jargon and wordiness. It could be reworded as follows without losing any meaning:

According to Beauvoir, to be a woman is more than to be biologically female. It also involves behaving in the way women are expected to based on historical precedent.

*     *     *

In summary, a lack of fluency (often caused by needlessly complex words) causes readers to negatively judge a text and its author. The degree of needless complexity varies across academic fields and this needless complexity likely harms public perceptions of the fields where it is most pronounced. All of this raises one last question: why do disciplines like gender studies insist on needless jargon? Three hypotheses seem most likely: historical coincidence, physics envy, and conscious deception.

The first two hypotheses suggest well-meaning authors. It is possible that the early writers of certain fields like gender studies set a bad precedent by coining long, unintuitive words that are now important to the field, while other disciplines were fortunate to have such tractable terms as black holes and dark matter. Alternatively, given the widespread attitude (at least in some circles) that the humanities and social sciences are softer, less challenging, or less valuable than other fields of inquiry, one could see academics in those fields internalizing a sense of inferiority. This attitude is known as physics envy. In order to prove their intelligence, to themselves and to others, they might be tempted to complicate simple ideas and use complex vocabulary to describe them—just like the Stanford undergraduates interviewed by Oppenheimer.

The third hypothesis, that they are consciously deceiving readers, brings us back to Oppenheimer’s fifth experiment. If you recall, participants in that experiment rated more highly the text quality and author intelligence of text printed with low toner. It was obvious to them that the low toner was biasing their judgements in a negative way, so they overcompensated. The question remains, what sources of poor fluency are obvious enough to hit the inflection point where instead of hurting perception they begin to help it? Does heavy use of complex academic jargon count as an obvious enough source and, if so, are writers incentivized to use it? If laymen are self-aware of the jargon reducing fluency, they may give the text and the author benefit of the doubt when it is undeserved.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question waiting to be answered. In the meantime, if the writers who are producing needlessly complex pieces are doing so to deceive the public, we can take solace in the fact that it isn’t working very well— there is only one sociology journal in the top 100 (Administrative Science Quarterly, #78), and one gender studies journal in the top 1,000 (Gender and Society, #975) of journals ranked by SJR.

 

Andrew Bade is a PhD candidate studying Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University.

1 Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.). 1996. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
2 Oppenheimer, D. M. 2006. Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20: 139-156.
3 Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. 1973. Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 207–232.
4 Fanelli, D. and Glänzel, W. 2013. Bibliometric Evidence for a Hierarchy of the Sciences. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66938.
5 Wechsler, R. H. and Tinker, J. L. 2018. The Connection Between Galaxies and Their Dark Matter Halos. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 56(1), 435-487.
6 Carian, E. K. 2018. Book Review: Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification by James W. Messerschmidt. Gender and Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243218809597
7 Butler, J. 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519-531. doi:10.2307/3207893

 

102 Comments

  1. Emmanuel says

    Well, writing in a ludicrously complex style in order to make weak ideas sound smart has worked fairly well for Judith Butler…

      • L.J. Middleton says

        Remember that Abraham Lincoln used the word “Speechify” in his jargon. Back in his day elected officials often simply made up words, but the public at least understood what they meant. My father always said, “Keep it simple stupid!” The stupid he meant by me, of course. He also said, “If you want to know about life, go out and live it.” If you think a university or college can give you life lessons, please cut your own throat now. Just kidding about the latter! Schooling is there to give you the basics on writing, history, math, sciences and the humanities are there to confuse the best of us. If you aspire to be a writer, then keep your writing simple so that everyone who reads it can understand it.

  2. Truthseeker says

    I read “Organismal” quite differently at first …

    • Cerastes says

      When my dad did his PhD, a friend of his in the biology PhD program handed over his thesis to be typed up by the secretary (this was the 70’s). Throughout the thesis, she inadvertently replaced “organisms” with “orgasms”.

  3. Jay Baldwin says

    The irony that has always struck me concerning the needlessly complex style of writing you describe is its exclusionary effect. These so-called “softer” fields are invariably writing about the oppressed, the marginalized, the alienated and their need of liberation (often from their false consciousness). Yet their writing is oppressively inaccessible, marginalizing, and alienating of the people they’re writing about. These academics have created a very exclusive club for themselves. I guess “inclusiveness” is for the little people.

    • Jay: How about this:

      “Complicated writing shuts people out. These progressives are always writing about “victims” and their need for freedom, but their writing hurts the people they’re writing about. These Lib-nerds live in their own little world, and the rest of us are excluded.”

  4. How ironic that Quillette publishes this piece given that Quillette often is one of the biggest offenders in the “unnecessarily complicated vocabulary” department.

    • Innominata says

      @edmundblakenelson

      HA! Indeed.

      Quillette seems to suffer bouts of Polonius Syndrome, a condition characterized by the loquacious forswearing of circumlocution:

      POLONIUS
      ..Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit
      And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
      I will be brief: your noble son is mad.
      Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,
      What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?
      But let that go.

      GERTRUDE
      More matter, with less art.

      POLONIUS
      Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
      That he is mad, ’tis true. Tis true, ’tis pity,
      And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure,
      But farewell it, for I will use no art.

      The shining intellect of the Spear Shaker strikes again.

    • Really? I have a math degree. I’m not the best writer; and I understand Quillette articles pretty well. Quillette is only one of the biggest offenders if USA Today is your benchmark.

    • I’ll concede that some articles suffer from this “needless complexity”, but not that Quillette is one of the worse offenders.

    • martti_s says

      Quillette does not produce its own content.
      The language used here reflects the education, social status and mental clarity of the contributors.
      English being my third language, I struggle to simplify. How I love writers who have done the same, saving me the trouble of reading back and worth, looking for a point.
      There are trigger words…ones that tell me to look somewhere else.
      Literally.

  5. Peter from Oz says

    Interesting that the law was not mentioned as a field of study. After all the law is the home of difficult prose. But unlike humanities academics, practising lawyers are working with really difficult concepts about things that actually matter. So on occasion long words and jargon are required. But our jargon is such fun.

    • E. Olson says

      I always thought that lawyers used needless complexity so that another lawyer would be required to correctly interpret the contract or law. In other words, complexity is a make work program for the legal profession.

    • DrJack says

      Yeah, lawyers deal with really difficult concepts that actually, tangibly, really matter, like tax and corporate law, unlike humanities academics, who deal with 2500 years of intellectual history.

      If you want to blow your own professional trumpet, at least do it in the bathroom.

        • Thomas Barnidge says

          While working in the public welfare sector, we had to come up with notices of change in benefits that a) would be valid in a court of law And b) be able to be read and understood by an individual with a fifth grade reading ability. The result was an overlong mishmash that was incomprehensible by anyone.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Let’s see you live in a world that has no contracts, you oaf.

    • Legal terms and latin words often serve to condense large ideas. They are usually useful.

  6. Lovely article, thanks. And useful! I was convinced that artificially complicating my essays would usually make them read and sound smarter. The research you present will aid both me and my teachers. :^)

  7. DrJack says

    I’d be wary of an ad hoc designation of ‘needless complexity’. How can a thesaurus decide if a shorter synonym is an appropriate replacement for a longer alternative in a particular context? After all, dictionaries list general meaning of words and not their technical meaning in physics or biology. The author notices this fact and writes that ‘[i]t is possible that the early writers of certain fields like gender studies set a bad precedent by coining long, unintuitive words that are now important to the field,’ and yet suggests that his reworded passages ‘do not lose any meaning’. Obviously, this cannot be judged without having a direct experience with a particular academic field. As an outsider, you cannot know when your thesaurus commits a blunder, or when you spot a ‘needless complexity’.

    For anyone interested in the topic of language and the impact of writing style on comprehension, or simply in learning how to write clearly, I’d recommend a short essay by George Orwell (yes, this Orwell), ‘Politics and the English Language’. There he addresses quite a few of the issues discussed in the article above. He also proposes a thesis that muddled, overly complex prose that reuses the same metaphors, one that is assembled out of ready-made parts rather than written, results in cognitive confusion and makes understanding and public debate impossible.

    • Peter from Oz says

      ”muddled, overly complex prose that reuses the same metaphors, one that is assembled out of ready-made parts rather than written,”
      ”boilerplate” is a good description of such prose.

      • DrJack says

        “Boilerplate” is a good example of yet another overused metaphor. Orwell makes his case exactly against such stock phrases; they are inaccurate, unimaginative, and ultimately meaningless substitutes for thinking.

    • Indeed, a thesaurus is a poor tool for just replacing words based on length. And long words aren’t necessarily harder to understand. Which is more typically understood, “wont” or “accustomed”?

  8. Stoic Realist says

    I can not say that the author or the study was convincing to me. There is a style and a flow to word usage. One can not simply swap words based on ‘thesaurus equivalency’ and hope to get deep understanding. Though I agree with the premise that pointlessly introducing complex vocabulary is detrimental, the intentional use has merit and if the words are used in a smooth, readable style they don’t seem to cause a problem.

    I would also say that the study’s (and the author’s) understanding of language is inadequate to the needs of the research. It does not, for instance, compensate for the natural wiggle tolerance for words. More complex words have a more narrow use space due to their more narrow scope. Simple words are used in a much larger array of instances making it more likely for internal correction to assign them a suitable meaning rather than to assume that they were misused.

    Then again I find his detour into attempting to sneak in some defense of gender studies to be extraneous to the subject. While language may be a problem in that field the complete lack of any concrete factual support or method is far more lethal. ‘Because I say so’ is insufficient for proof no matter the field and those fields are filled with non critically evaluated thought experiments. To save such studies you would first need to introduce a rigorous, objective method to their process.

    • Andrew says

      I agree on all three counts. It’s difficult to make room to hedge every claim enough in a non-academic article. I hope a linguist in the know takes the idea and runs with it to do a more thorough and convincing analysis.

      With regards to the detour in defense of gender studies: I was only hoping to use a “steel man” to make my case since Judith Butler is well known and respected in the field.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment,
      Andrew Bade

    • Mastriani says

      Unequivocally, I concur, and on all declared propositions. Well said, well done.

    • On a related note, I used to review for readability every report produced by my environmental consultancy. I wanted my staff to understand that, even for highly technical reports, the effort should be ours to write well rather than our client’s in struggling to understand them. This meant writing with both precision (using words precisely, as you describe above) and simplicity. Obviously, everyone had their writing style, but I found it is possible to edit a report for simplicity and precision while still preserving the author’s voice.

      • Exactly what my graduate supervisor taught me. However, in making it simpler, he often lost the exact meaning of what I was trying to say. In the re-writes, I had to say it so he could understand.

    • Constantin says

      @StoicRealist – excellent points! I would note, however, that “smooth and readable style” seems to be completely inapplicable to most post-modernist writing, including its most recent manifestation in the so called “gender studies”. I have yet to be shown a text that did not require real will power to penetrate its meaning. LOL The second point is valid in the sense that precise communication requires the use of precise and dedicated terminology, but such effort should always be aimed at combating ambiguity, and not be allowed if intelligible. In other words, such choice must be intentional and guided solely by a desire to avoid potential ambiguity. Finally, with regards to the third point, I fully and unreservedly agree that the use of complex language is negligible compared with the lack of scientific integrity. Unlike, Mr. Bade, however, I suspect that the adoption of impenetrable code language in all the pseudo-scientific manifestations of identity politics is neither aimed at posing as super intelligent, nor aimed at tricking the unsuspecting reader into accepting unsupported assumptions. Even if present, such intentions are peripheral to reinforcing a tribal identity. The use of such terminology is like Rudyard Kipling’s call of the Jungle: “We are of the same blood you and I!”. It is the ticket for membership into the fold and the mark of having been successfully and thoroughly brainwashed and thus perfectly qualified to brainwash others. I am not drawing this inference lightly or carelessly, but based on the empirical observation that the “e.lightened” insiders are determined to deem everyone else as irremediably fascist, ‘….phobe’ of some sort or another, racist, misogynist, white supremacist – and most likely a very unholy combination of all of the above. My thesis here is that the use of code language here is aimed at displaying adherence to set of pre-determined ideas held by those who invented much of this stupefying terminology. 🙂

      • jakesbrain says

        The most valid purpose of complex terminology is to clarify, to delineate and distinguish, and to reduce ambiguity; where it inhibits understanding, it has obviously failed. I think you are right that most of the jargon and gobbledygook currently infesting the social sciences is meant as a flag of solidarity more than anything else — they adopt it because it is impenetrable to those not among the Elect.

    • Haggis says

      Hegemonic does not translate to power, and so the author uses an example that empirically undermines his own stance. Meanwhile the example of Judith Butler is more on point: while the use of overly fancy words is problematic, writing a lot without saying much is worse in my opinion. I read Butler’s Gender Trouble and she constantly uses long sentences to overly complicate simple things. However, in this case the author again oversimplifies Butler’s message and leaves out crucial information as he doesn’t even mention gender or performativity.

      • Stephanie says

        Google defines “hegemonic” as “ruling or dominant in a political or social context.” Seems to me “powerful” is a perfectly appropriate substitute.

        The author does mention gender. Perhaps you skimmed that part? As for “performativity,” its relevance to this article is restricted to its recent origin as a buzzword, needlessly complicating a simple concept because soft “researchers” are burning with insecurity.

    • Lasto says

      Yes, a good example is replacing “hegemonic masculinity” with “powerful maleness.” These two phrases are not synonymous at all. In fact, it seems almost to be the exact wrong replacement since hegemonic masculinity refers to gender norms, not biology.

  9. E. Olson says

    I might propose a derivative of the 3rd hypothesis for the needless complexity in gender studies writing: the better to disguise the fact that the empress has no clothes.

  10. The author is studying “Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology”
    Organismal Biology may have a well defined meaning within the field but as a layman it seems Tautological and an example of what the authour is bemoaning. Biology is the study of organisms. Would the meaning be different if ‘organismal’ was omitted?

    • Eric the Half Bee says

      The first year of the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge used to offer two modules in Biology: Biology of Cells; and Biology of Organisms. I assume a similar distinction may be implicitly in play here.

      • I realised that ‘organimal biology’ was used to distinguish it from cellular and molecular biology but despite this think from a language and clarity point of view contributes nothing except additional complexity. If the term biology is used by itself it may technically may include every possible aspect of studyineg organisms but because no qualifier is used conveys a meaning of the core areas of biological study. The context is that the study is of Evolution, Ecology and (Organismal) Biology. In this context the study is clealry of organisms that evolve and are part of ecological systems so Organismal is just padding.

        • Cerastes says

          AJ: It’s actually about “levels”. Biologists will frequently clarify their research area by speaking of “levels” of organization they’re working at.

          For instance, someone working on horizontal gene transfer cpuld be working at the molecular level (“How does the new material add itself to the existing DNA strand?”), the cellular level (“How does a cell acquire foreign DNA strands?”), the tissue/organ level (“How does the addition of this new DNA alter function?”), the organism level (“How does this change in tissue function affect the whole organism’s function?”), the ecological level (“How does the ability to suddenly alter function affect community interactions?”), and the evolutionary level (“How does the acquisition of new DNA alter evolutionary processes?”).

          They’re all biology, but each asks different questions, uses different tools, requires different training, publishes in different places, and get funding from different sources. A lot of schools just have ne big dept (mine does), but in larger schools it’s common for them to split, either due to petty infighting or to more effectively allocate resources, facilities, students, and more fairly judge tenure applications.

          Short version – it’s an internal self-sorting system that lets people know quickly what you do. If I say I work on X at Y level, people in the field instantly know what tools and skills I have versus don’t have, and whether they can bring something new to the table in a collaboration.

  11. GACooper says

    And not so well for Mr. Bade, who’s verbosity, in this case, rivals Faulkner. But nowhere near the artistic pinnacle.
    Ironic, considering the subject of the article.

  12. annaerishkigal says

    The dean of our law school used to randomly come in to different classrooms to survey our legal pleadings, throw it onto a projector, and then publicly circle and deduct points for every “$5 word” that we used to convey legal-ize (that good old “Socratic method” of public humiliation). He believed the study and interpretation of the law should be readily understandable by the common man. And in our Legal Reading & Writing course, at the Dean’s insistence, the instructor did the same thing. We lost points for “sounding like a bunch of lawyers.”

    Academia needs to do the same…

    • Peter from Oz says

      Lawyers make great writers when trained in this fashion. SUch training also helps with the process of thought and of marshalling arguments.

  13. Event Horizon says

    Someone please forward this essay to Michael Eric Dyson.

  14. A. Curious says

    I don’t think it is fair to penalize academic writers for writing to their audience. For instance, the same rule does not apply to works of high fiction, and often if a reader struggles to get on with a novel that is seen as a classic but seems to lack fluency (I’m thinking Ulysses, The Soft Machine, A Clockwork Orange among others) the perceived problem is with the reader, and not the author. A different example would be a book like Les Misérables; the written words follow fairly normal structures and are not overly complicated, but the sheer volume and wandering nature of its content can put many people off.

    I find that when reading books like these, I more often end up frustrated with myself for my lack of understanding/ability to fully appreciate the content, and not with the author. Of course, I shouldn’t and don’t expect authors of fiction to dumb things down to my level, but then why should that not also be true for academic articles?

    The target (or at least actual) audience of both academic articles and the books above – indeed, many of the classics – does not include the casual reader. It is widely accepted that these genres tend to be the domain of informed, intellectual readers. Writers of academic articles are often writing for other academics and not for the general public, so they can make assumptions about the complexity of their writing and the presence of jargon. Similarly, most people’s encounters with books such as A Clockwork Orange or Ulysses are as study materials, to be read and re-read, to be partly deciphered, but never fully understood. Enjoyment is a possible by-product, not the focus, and that’s fine. Horses for courses.

    We see complex novels full of obscure words and concepts as high works of art, despite often not being able to fully understand them, and regard complex, jargon filled academic articles as exclusionary and frustrating. The former is fiction and the latter (tends to be) more rooted in facts, but both are written to share knowledge, discoveries, viewpoints, information about the human condition that the author believes are of some value to someone, even if it’s just themselves. We do not resent intelligent and complex novelists but can easily resent academics who are doing the same. In both cases the reader can miss out on important or interesting ideas because the ideas fly right over their heads, but the novelist is brilliant and is granted longevity, the academic is arrogant and is more often than not discarded or not even noticed at all, unless other academics tell us that what he/she has written is brilliant. If we dumb down works of classic literature, art is lost, and if we dumb down academic articles, clarity, specificity and efficiency is lost.

    Neither party is writing for the general public, and Everyday man (myself included) happily wanders about unaffected by both for the most part or does not even begin to think to look to academic literature to provide understanding or interest in a given subject. Intellectual authors can often safely assume a similar level of understanding and interest from their reader base. For example, I would be unlikely to subscribe to a scientific journal titled “Gender and Society” without a pre-existing interest and background knowledge of at least some of the topics inside, and so the authors of any articles that appear in this journal can make the relatively safe assumption that they will be understood, and so is unlikely to feel that they need to pander to their audience, who in turn are unlikely to view the article as needlessly complex.

    Quillette is similar, a niche place for (some mildly, others less so) subversive pseudo (some mildly, others less so) intellectuals to read about and discuss things that interest them, and as @edmundblakenelson states, “Quillette often is one of the biggest offenders in the ‘unnecessarily complicated vocabulary’ department”. We only found Quillette because we were looking, and only stay because we want to, and so the authors of Quillette articles can assume a level of complexity in their language that is suitable for a Quillette audience. It’s meeting a set of requirements, filling a hole for a certain set of people who require intellectual discussion/explanation of the various topics Quillette features to satisfy their interest, and with that comes complex, sometimes unnecessarily so, language. But it’s part of the experience, the Quillette culture. We are here because we like to read academic articles on the short-comings of academic articles.

    We become interested in things, and as we gain knowledge about them we begin to buy the journals, listen to the podcasts, watch the YouTube videos, go to the talks, meet other people and form groups that feed and nurture our interest, perhaps even end up writing articles about them for other people who are interested in the same thing, and so also have the knowledge to understand them. We gain specific, complex knowledge about subjects, and are justified in using complex language to share this knowledge with people who are similarly interested because they will understand it and are looking for a more academic explanation of the subject. You can’t be interested in something if you know nothing about it. Even if the short excerpt of an article from the “Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics” used less complex and shorter words than that of one from “Gender and Society”, I imagine the different intended audiences of both articles could understand them just fine. We shouldn’t expect a dumbing down of academic articles, just as we don’t expect it from complex novelists. Rise to the author’s expectations, grow and develop your understanding, don’t ask for it to be made easier. If something is important enough, there will be a way for it to reach everyone.

    • B. Serious says

      Put concisely, it could be less complex, but why should it have to be?

      • Because one writes to communicate. Effective communication is easiest when writing is simple and clear. Anything else is unnecessary complication.

        • A. Curious says

          I agree, but would argue that different groups communicate on different levels with a corresponding difference in the complexity of vocabulary used. Complex vocabulary is subjective, and it would not be unfair for the author of an article in – to use the same example of ‘Gender and Society’ – to assume that their audience has a more sophisticated grasp on the jargon surrounding their subject. Therefore, they can afford to use more complicated vocabulary to express themselves, and not fear being misunderstood.

          Essentially, I would argue that the layman would not even begin to think to look to academic articles to provide information on a given subject, as I said above. If there became a need for academic discoveries to be shared with the masses, then someone will come along who fulfills that need, and simplifies the topic. This can be seen in school textbooks, newspapers, on television etc. It is a distillation of academic learning that the Everyman can understand, and has only come about because it is necessary. Till such a time as it is necessary that is shared, academic discoveries remain in a more complex form, within the domain of academia, and so in a more complicated style of language, designed for other experts.

          The readers of the excerpts involved in the tests described in this article were probably not experts in the topics covered in the test articles, and so of course they coped better with an simpler article. But in reality they would never have gone looking for such an article in the first place, simple or no, and so would not be required to understand the more complex vocabulary of the article. It’s easy in this test format to say that academics are being arrogant by not simplifying their articles for the layman, but in reality who is going to read their articles but other academics with extensive background knowledge and strong interest in the subject that provides them with a more than adequate understanding of the specifics of the vocabulary?

          • A. Curious, I think there are different aspects to the question we’re discussing. There is nothing inherently wrong with adopting an ‘academic voice’ by using a complex vocabulary or use words uncommon to everyday parlance. It serves to identify with your group (academics) as well as to segregate yourself from those with a simpler vocabulary and/or those unwilling to make the effort to learn words they don’t understand. What is indefensible is the ego trip at the root of using complicated words where simpler ones will do. There’s plenty of that in academia.

            Another aspect to this, layered out of sight, is that writing simply and clearly is hard work. When you learn and adopt ‘academic writing’ from your readings and from the people you correspond with, it is easy to stay with that style. However, it only works well with that crowd and writing for others with a simpler language demands a lot of effort that too many people are unwilling to make. I learned this first-hand when I taught Biology in prisons. I had to dispense entirely with the academic style of presentation and adopt a simpler language. It took enormous effort to convey the same content in the much simpler, non-academic language, but the payoff was that I reached people who were otherwise excluded from learning this material. There was great reward in that.

          • A. Curious says

            Andre, I completely agree with your argument, which I think (stripped down) is that context is everything, a good writer must be able to correctly judge his audience and the quote often attributed to Einstein that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

            Boiled down, my problem is with the context behind the articles chosen as example texts. If you choose material written by academics for other academics from a list of the top journals in the U.S, of course the article will contain the complex and jargon filled vocabulary of academics. Certainly some of it is posturing and hiding behind complicated looking words, but that is part of the culture of academia, so within that context it makes sense and as you say, it works well with that crowd. As such, it seems the only reason that the author of this article chose these examples is to fit with his hypothesis, which in my view is a fairly poor way to construct a fair and balanced argument.

            A better study would have reviewed the process of adaptation that academic works undergo when they are to be presented to the general public. They could have focused on the language used by academics in nationwide television interviews when discussing climate change, or articles in newspapers about a study on the economic effects of a right wing government in Turkey, or any moment when academic research meets the language of the layman and has to be adapted and simplified to be understood. You mentioned in a different comment above about getting your staff to simplify highly technical environmental reports for your clients. That is a perfect example of specialized research having to be simplified for a non-specialist, and it would be interesting to compare the initial results and presentation of information to the finished written product that was delivered to your clients.

            I think we agree on the points we both raised, and I will admit and apologize that I have not been concise in getting there.

          • Circuses and Bread says

            @A. Curious

            You paint with a broad brush. Some laymen, of which I am one, have gone straight to academic articles to learn. I used to do it fairly frequently. Due to the advent of paywalls, I’ve become much less of a consumer of this sort of information. Hard to read and expensive is a great recipe to ensure that only the academic tribe reads what has been written.

        • jakesbrain says

          Complication ceases to be unnecessary when one needs to disambiguate or make a distinction. Effective communication also means effective use of complexity: i.e. complexity should ideally be used to clarify complex ideas, not to obfuscate them.

    • peanut gallery says

      I see it like this: if one uses a lot of words to say very little. They are either overcompensating or bloviating. This is at odds with using more complex words in a precise way that says a lot with very little. That makes a work dense and and maybe more complex, but I think there’s something to be said for economy of words.

      Eric Dyson is a good example of the first. As a child that read a lot, my verbose prose impressed the grade school English teachers, but I one should grow out of that sort of cheap thrill. A college professor should be over that stage in life. YMMV.

  15. The conclusions drawn from expts 2,3 seem unwarranted, given that you say the results were not statistically significant.

    Its also rather unfair of Ref 4 to class Archaeology as soft/humanities. There is plenty of good science/technology work being done there nowadays.

  16. tamoraslover says

    The first experiment is flawed. Substituting short words with long words by finding the longest word in a thesaurus will invariably make the writer look like a poser. Or a dolt. A thesaurus is not a 1-for-1 substitution tool.

    Imagine the opposite experiment. “inundate” becomes “dunk” and “circumnavigate” becomes “skirt”. How would the shorter essay be rated?

  17. Caligula says

    “A scientific theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler” is attributed to Albert Einstein. But surely this can be expanded to cover most sorts of writing: it should be as complex as necessary to convey what it has to say, but no more than that.

    And, yes, as short as possible also. Unless you’re getting paid by the word, of course. Or an author of best-sellers, in which case no editor will dare tell you that your 800-page doorstop really would be better if cut to 300 max.

  18. In the current stream of articles on this matter, I appreciate that yours is not another mix of folksy-wisdom.

    Not all of this, however, is a question of preference or even agreeing to disagree.

    Your rewrite of Butler’s argument is far more readable but it is also patently wrong.

    To say that the passage is simply a distinction between sex and gender is unenlightening and inaccurate. It is perhaps not easy to see that some of the common terms – e.g., history, materialize – in the passage have specific and technical connotations. But to remove “facticity” from that passage just because it sounds “wordy” is not remotely a question of style. It is part of the actual argument.

  19. William Rice says

    Bade suggests “writers who are producing needlessly complex pieces are doing so to deceive the public” aren’t doing well based on the SJR of journals in sociology and gender studies. That is, Bade uses journal citation activity from academic journals to other academic journals to comment on a field’s “public” reputation. Bade had better define what he means by “public.”

    At the beginning of his article Bade suggests that journals employing needlessly complex language are paying the price of negative public perception. He seems to miss the obvious rebuttal: that the academics in these fields employ deliberately obscure language as an “entrance fee” of sorts. Further, it could be argued that some “soft” fields (philosophy) require what outsiders perceive as technical jargon.

    I tend to agree with Bade that SSH researchers use complex language where something simpler would do. Unfortunately he seems motivated less by a search for “truth” than by the chip on his shoulder.

  20. Good job Andrew. It’s a counterintuitive thought that flexing the vocabulary would make someone sound less intelligent, but function over form does seem optimal for sake of clarity upon examination. I don’t know what all the complaints about your methodology add up to…it’s easier to criticize than create I suppose.

    I will definitely try and shoehorn “Physics envy” into my next discussion with my sociologist sister and her therapist friends. Should be good for a laugh.

    Also, I will reference this paper the next time my wife accuses me (rightfully) of using grunts and other cave man noises as a form of communication.

  21. cacambo says

    Hey, I appreciate concision as much as the next guy, but “hegemonic” and “powerful” don’t really mean the same thing.

  22. Thomas Barnidge says

    There are other ways to make yourself appear smarter than the average bear. My favorites:
    Before answering a question, begin by saying “ the answer is complex.” Thus if you guess right, you are a genius; guess wrong, and well, the answer is too complex even for geniuses.

    If a name is commonly pronounced one way, pronounce it “the correct way” even if you are making it all up. My favorite is the English professor who insisted that Jekyll (as in Jekyll and Hyde) be pronounced Jerk-el as he demanded. Maybe he’s right, maybe wrong, but the general public are definitely crude and incorrect.

    The now infamous demand prior to an answer “well, you must first define (x). So a simple question like “is it a nice day outside?”(which is a shortened form of “do YOU think it’s a nice day?” Is met with the words “well depends on how one defines “nice”. Of course than one most also define the words “is”, “day”, outside” etc. which makes actual communication to the non-post modernist layperson difficult. Which is further proof of their intellectual inferiority.

  23. R Henry says

    Two thoughts:

    1) Can these results be replicated? If, like most other social science research results, they cannot, consider these electrons wasted.

    2) Many writers use complex structures and long words poorly. William F. Buckely and his pupil George Will, often do so masterfully. For some reason, talent, creativity, and simple skill have yet to find their true measure.

  24. X. Citoyen says

    I have no use for mystagogue-activists like Judith Butler, but I can’t let this half-baked analysis pass without calling shenanigans.

    1. Your misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of Fanelli and Glänzel’s hierarchy of sciences paper is enough to sink your whole case. You quote them stating “a proportional loss of cognitive structure and coherence in…literature,” and then claim they meant that “Gender and Society uses equally complex language to describe ‘softer’ phenomena,” entailing that the “degree of needless complexity is higher than in similarly complex texts where the underlying difficulty of the concepts is greater.” That’s not what the authors claimed or what they meant by soft and hard sciences, the paper said nothing about language use across disciplines, and you’ve confused or conflated difficult (hard to master) with complex (having many variables).

    Their hard-to-soft science continuum refers to the high-to-low consensus observed when one moves from the study of subatomic particles (low complexity, high consensus = hard) to human societies (high complexity, low consensus = soft). When they talk about “proportional loss of cognitive structure and coherence” in the literature, they mean their review of journal articles shows that physicists consistently cite a small, common, and recent body of agreed-upon literature in their papers—this strong consensus is what “hard” means. As one moves into the social sciences and humanities the literature cited becomes larger, more diverse, and the age-range increases—this weak and spotty consensus is what “soft” means.

    This analysis could lead to exactly the opposite conclusion of the one you drew: On their criterion of softness, the language of disciplines studying more complex phenomena (i.e., soft sciences) could easily be more complex, not less complex, to reflect the complexity of the phenomena studied.

    2. Using gender studies and Butler as representative of the humanities is like using catastrophist cosmology and Velikovsky as representative of astrophysics—using the extreme for the normal is to create a strawman.

    3. You can’t compare physics and, say, philosophy without recognizing that the latter has both soft and a hard parts where the former is homogenously hard. Logic and set theory, argumentation, languages, etc., will form a hard core of philosophy on Fanelli and Glänzel’s definition because the textbooks and papers on these subjects have the same high consensus one finds in physics and mathematics. And given that mathematics shares some parts of philosophy’s hard core (e.g., discrete mathematics), a simple dichotomy between the two is a false one.

    4. You’ve confused two kinds of complexity. The samples in Oppenheimer’s experiments are straightforward thesaurus abuse. Here are the two versions of one of his examples from Experiment 1, provided at the end of the paper:

    (Sample 1, original version) I want to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to know literature well. I want to explore the shape and the meaning of the novel and its literary antecedents. I want to understand what the novel has meant in different literary periods, and what is likely to become. I want to explore its different forms, realism, naturalism and other modes, and the Victorian and Modernist consciousness as they are revealed.

    (Sample 1, high complexity version) I desire to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to recognize literature satisfactorily. I want to investigate the character and the connotation of the narrative and its literary antecedents. I desire to comprehend what the narrative has represented in numerous literary periods, and what it is expected to become. I desire to investigate its numerous manners, realism, naturalism, and other approaches, and the Victorian and Modernist consciousness as they are discovered.

    Any halfway literate person will form a negative judgment of the second version by the word “satisfactorily,” which is just about as pretentious and awkward as you can get. Second, the phrase “the shape and the meaning of the novel” is figurative and vague, but not awkward or out of place in the context of a short grad school letter. The substitution in the complex version, however, “the character and the connotation of the narrative,” is meaningless verbiage. Narrative is not a synonym for novel. Unlike “the novel,” which denotes a kind or type, narrative modified by “the” implies an antecedent—i.e., some specific narrative named earlier in the text.

    I could go on, but the point here is that Butler and the other mystagogue-activists don’t get their words from thesauruses. They coin or re-purpose abstractions that operate as solipsistic models for interpreting the world. From an epistemological standpoint, these models are conspiracy theories. Words are tailored with the perfect balance of specificity and amorphousness to apply to anything, to mean what they want them to mean, and to resist refutation. Hegemony/-ic, which means “exercising power over/subjugating” (not, as you suggest, “powerful”), is a good example. It’s not argued for but posited to define the relationship between—in the case of hegemonic masculinity—men and women. Once assumed to be true, all observed behaviours become exercises of power or resistance to it.

    So, no, the language of Butler et al. is nothing as banal as needless complexity.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @Citizen X

      Nicely done!

      I considered leaving a comment until I read yours and realized you’ve already said everything (and more) that I was going to say and – to my chagrin – almost certainly much better (succinctly, exacting, etc., etc.) than I could have said it; which, I hesitate to concede, is likely not the accomplishment I think it to be. Nonetheless, yours was an insightful response. A tip-of-the-hat to you, Monsieur!

  25. Benjamin Perez says

    Although someone else already mentioned it, everyone really should (re)read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (now easily found, for free, online)—indeed, everything he warned his readers about then is even worse today; hence, all of the advice he gave then is even more in need of following today. (I probably should have reread it before I wrote this post—please forgive any slovenliness in my writing.)

  26. As someone who enjoys writing more as a hobby, this article provides some great insight. I find myself struggling with word choice from time to time and it was somewhat relieving to see the results of the experiments mentioned. I sometimes feel that if I lean more towards concise word choices, I’m not giving the reader enough in terms of quality. When I stand back and look at that however, I realize how silly that sounds. Over complicating the message doesn’t make the message any better.

  27. Your claim to have reworded Butler’s sentiments “without losing any of the meaning” is so far off the mark it’s laughable. With so many comments blithely cheering on your thesis without regard for this frankly obvious point, I only hope that a general inclination to distrust gender studies and the like is to blame––after all, we all let our prejudices cloud our judgements, by definition. Better that than the frankly depressing possibility that people with reading comprehension skills so wanting consider themselves to be the arbiters of good stylistic form.

  28. Andrew Mcguiness says

    One thing though: I have to admit to liking Judith Butler’s ideas. ‘Gender Trouble’, despite the difficulty of its language, actually pinpointed a fundamental idea (which I think is true) about gender as performance; and ‘Excitable Speech’ is an easy-to-read, well-evidenced argument against the concept of ‘hate speech’.

    The thing is, whether you agree with the ideas in ‘Gender Trouble’ or not, Judith Butler at least had something definite to say, and it was an original and groundbreaking idea at the time of writing. Amidst all the jargon (and there isn’t more jargon in it than in much writing in the field of analytic philosophy) there were an actual argument and a conclusion, unlike a lot of gender studies which implies or adumbrates ideas without ever owning up to them explicitly.

  29. Circuses and Bread says

    There is hope: keep the language simple. I think I can do that.

    Kudos to the author for noting that complex language and jargon are used by academics to obscure. As one who is not all that well educated, I run into it all the time. If I want to enter into the mysterious world of academic research I have to do so with a dictionary in hand. Can’t have the great unwashed understanding the meaning of “epistemologathingamabobber”, now can we? It does seem to be a kind of arms race between the plebs and academics. We plebs buy dictionaries, the academics invent new, fancier words. We plebs find better online dictionaries, the academics put their papers behind a pay wall. And so it goes.

    (To be fair, not all academics play the obscurity game. The IDW is one place where academics do try to communicate with the larger public. The environmental sciences is another exception.)

  30. To some of these responses:

    The difference between some Quillette articles vs some of the comments therein – the supposedly “needlessly complex” articles are actually INTERESTING to read while many longer comments are just TL;DR.

  31. jimhaz says

    The internet means that limited education folks such as myself will choose those who express themselves best at a level I can quickly understand – otherwise I’ll just move on to something else. I did not even finish Year 11, let alone go to university and do not have any close friends who converse using academic-centric words.

    If you want your message to spread out past the domain of academics, or the above 125 IQers, then you need to make the article as easy to read as one can. It is part of the reason a person like Sam Harris is so popular.

    If there are only a few words I am not accustomed to that is OK, I may choose to refer to a dictionary, but if an article is full of words I have never personally used, I just do not bother.

    It is not just the words though, but the references to other people’s work, such as Greek tragedies’ for instance, as if it is assumed everyone will know the work and how it applies to the paragraph. Limit these references eg 1 per article, unless they refer to popular or contemporary culture.

    I also move on, if the writer does not make it clear within a couple of paragraphs what the point of the article is. Writers like to egotistically rant on about X,Y, Z as leads up to their point, they like to make it feel like they are telling a story about themselves, which is fine in a book but not in the competitive online world. Sometimes it feels like they don’t really have much of a point and are just adding a lot of filler for their own ego’s sake or to fill it out to be a reasonable size article.

    I understand that in-field writing requires a level of preciseness that requires the use of words rarely used in public, and that sometimes such words need to be promulgated out to the public to enhance contextual understanding – but in an open online media site, nahh.

    Academics and very high IQ folk often like to play mental chess, and for them the word game can seem to be more important than the content, as the competition does add to status at the peer level – but the broader public does not play this game. Yes, one can be and feel smart using large uncommonly used words, but go too far and you’ll just be thought of as an elitist wanker talking meaningless shit. Dumb it down to the 110-125 IQ level.

    • Don Martin says

      Kudos from an old news hand. Writing at a level readers can quickly understand is what we are taught as noobies and our best editors remind us constantly. For example we’d change “converse” to “talk” because we think it more likely your friends talk than converse; it’s just too hifalutin.

      We’d kill your last paragraph. It detracts from a very good comment. I’ve covered these people for some forty years and have not seen this gamesmanship. As to IQ levels, I know little; general interest news publications are edited for readers in middle school, 9th grade tops.

  32. David Turnbull says

    The English language has very few true synonyms so the use of a thesaurus as anything other than an aide-memoire is ill-advised.

  33. Karl Popper, Wider die großen Worte, Die Zeit, 1971

    “Every intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the privilege and opportunity to study. Hence, he owes to his fellow humans (or ‘the society’) to explain the results of his research in the most simple, clearest and humble way. The worst thing – the sin against the holy ghost – an intellectual can commit, is to try to pose as great prophet and to try to impress his fellows with oracle-like philosophies. If one can’t say it simply and clearly, then one should remain silent and keep working until one can.”

    (Source in german, translation mine)

    https://www.zeit.de/1971/39/wider-die-grossen-worte/komplettansicht

  34. puddleg58 says

    There’s an Aphorism of CG Lichtenberg’s apropos of Kant, to the effect that the more effort some people have to put into understanding an idea, the more likely they are to be impressed by it.

    We could term this investment – “I have invested several years and several thousands of dollars into trying to understand post-modernism, I cannot be a fool, therefore I think post-modernism is important and meaningful”.

  35. I actually think there is an exception in the case of tone. There are many pairs of equivalent words where one is shorter and more colloquially and the other is more formal (“big” versus “large,” “don’t” versus “do not,” “like” versus “such as,” “since” versus “because”).

    I used to follow the “use simple words” guidance religiously, but now draw the line at colloquial terms, which make you sound dummer, irrespective of word length, but I could be wrong.

  36. joe daniels says

    The reason grievance studies uses long words when short ones would do is that when said with short words it is obvious that what they say is false. For example, women are adult female humans so what de Beauvoir and Butler say is obviously false. The redefinition of ‘woman’ as a gender instead of a sex is a tendentious piece of humbug that feminists had to invent to avoid the truth of biological determism.

  37. Pingback: Miscellaneous Links for November 16: Proof of what we already know – Richard Kain's Writings

  38. In archaeology one of our early theorists, 1960’s, wrote in an obscure manner “because if he writes clearly and the reader immediately understands what is being argued, then there is a risk that it will be blindly accepted and perpetuated as received knowledge. By burying his meaning in complicated prose Binford forces the reader to consciously deconstruct his argument by reading slowly and rereading even more slowly.”

  39. The paraphrase of Butler’s quotation certainly does not mean the same thing, and it’s moronic to pretend so. By way of proof, try the mental experiment of reading the paraphrase as having been written prior to the original, the original is clearly more developed and more specific.

  40. Don Martin says

    I submit that the title of Oppenheimer’s article suffices to make his point and to demonstrate the “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” No need to read what’s below that. In Bade’s words, that headline itself “effectively makes the case against needless complexity in writing.”

  41. simplulo says

    Germanic words (like our profanity) are often shorter, Latinate words often longer. Germanic words are the original English of the people; Latinate words were introduced after 1066 with the Norman conquest. To this day politicians tend to speak to the people Germanically, academics address their elite peers in Latinate. Productive Germanic words generate slang; Latinate words get used figuratively: tree-huggers embrace environmentalism. So while needless complexity might be a symptom of a small or insecure mind, I’m not sure that word length is such a reliable indicator. You might be seeing a preference among some people for vocabulary of one ethnic origin or another.

  42. Lasto says

    Hegemonic is a much more specific than powerful. Things can be powerful without being hegemonic, but not the other way around. When “powerful” is combined with “maleness” you get the idea of physical strength, as opposed to a widely accepted set of norms/ideas.

    • Prester Kahn says

      Agreed. A better substitution (IMO) would be ‘apex’ or ‘alpha’ which better conveys the ‘top of the social heap’ connotation of hegemonic.

  43. The phrase that comes to mind, “One does the lame man no favor by limping before him”.

  44. Andrew Lohr says

    Do we despise lawyers partly because of the jargon they use?

  45. L.J. Middleton says

    If everyone wrote in a simple style there would be more people who would read what you have written. A friend who is an author writes novels and is a libertarian in the UK. He writes under a pen name. His novels are really hard to understand without a dictionary from the fourteenth century. The wordage makes it hard for readers to enjoy, unless they are as intellectual as he is, no slurs against my friend here. I have told him repeatedly that if he wanted to sell his history tales he needs to learn to write in a more simple manner. My father used to say, “Writing big words doesn’t make you smart, it just makes the reader close the book and throw it in the corner.” Never to be read again is the gist. In our time the most read books are the Harry Potter series by adults and chidlren alike. Adults are offended because J.K. Rowling writes at a level that her young readers have no problems understanding. Her adult readers are mesmerized by the imagery within her novels and her attention to the details. If you need to see those details watch the new series of films “Magical Beasts” and all the things you didn’t understand from the original Harry Potter begin to make sense. Not sure if any other author has ever done this kind of imagining in novels and movies, but this latest movie had characters that we all wanted to know more about in the Harry Potter series. My forte as it is is in political and politics of policies styled writing, but picking up Harry Potter books revealed to me that I’m a sincerely unimaginative writer preferring the drab reality of the political genre. If on the other hand you write like some Antifa dimwit prepare to see your marks go way down if you go to school.

  46. Prester Kahn says

    I disagree with the shortened interpretation of Judith Butler’s quote. It seems to drop the point being made. I would shorten it to:

    According to Beauvoir, to be a ‘woman’ has nothing to do with being female. Rather, it is the only the physical assumption of the cultural ideas and roles of ‘woman’ that defines being a ‘woman’.

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