Do you ever find yourself reaching for the thesaurus in a bid to make yourself sound more intelligent? If you do, you’re not alone. According to Stanford academic Daniel Oppenheimer, over 85% of undergraduates surveyed admitted to doing exactly this. They believed that because the ideas they were explaining were complex, their language needed to be too.

In his research, Oppenheimer studied the complexity of vocabulary in a range of tasks including job applications, academic essays and, slightly strangely, translations of Descartes.

He found that readers viewed the writers who had used simpler language as being more intelligent thus showing that the unnecessary use of complex language sends out a bad impression. 

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as this. Range of vocabulary is positively correlated with intelligence as measured by test scores and there’s little that’s more frustrating than not being able to express yourself clearly because you don’t have the words.

There’s a belief too that if language becomes too simple, this might actually lead to ‘dumbing down’ and see a nuanced idea distilled into headlines. We believe that in using complex language we will encourage the reader to appreciate how complex the ideas under discussion are.

While it’s certainly true that’s it’s possible to oversimplify to the point true meaning is lost, this isn’t actually the point I’m making here. Academic and professional brilliance still requires the detailed and the complex, it just doesn’t require word salad to express it. The title of Oppenheimer’s article about this topic expresses this idea brilliantly as he calls it this:

Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly

Put, ahem, simply, simple language is easier for the reader or listener to process, that is, they can more easily understand you. This then frees up mental space to dedicate to understanding the meaning behind the points you’re making. Simplicity increases fluency which inspires confidence, feelings of trustworthiness and even likeability according to Oppenheimer. In short, by keeping the language you use as simple as you can while still allowing for the complexity for the issue means that you are more likely to get what you want. 

Albert Einstein probably expressed this idea best: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

So, if you find yourself reaching for the thesaurus a little bit too often, follow the advice of the writers who have gone before you – keep it simple, stupid.


While you’re here I wanted to tell you a little bit about the writing courses I offer. These are bespoke teaching packages created for you based on your goals. The courses include academic writing and preparing personal statements for job applications and UCAS forms. I am also a British English accent trainer. If you’re interested in finding out more about the services I offer, the information is here.