We've long suspected it, but now we have proof. Long words make you sound stupid and short words are best.

I'm fed up with people stealing my brain. Over here, in merrie olde England, it is illegal to misuse people's computers, for example, by infecting them with viruses. But for some reason I haven't figured out yet, it is not illegal for bad writers to corrupt my neurons, waste my mental capacity and steal my time with shoddy prose.

Me write stupid

Short words are best. Strunk and White made this argument a long time ago but now we have proof. The March 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly cited a piece of research that found that long words make text harder to read (well, duh!) but, surprisingly, make the author seem stupid to the reader. Since this is not an effect most authors wish for, it must come as a bit of a surprise.

The title of this masterpiece, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly," says it all really. I love it when scientists have a sense of irony. Good for you Daniel M. Oppenheimer.

Readability matters

There are a number of statistical methods that you can use to measure readability, such as the Gunning-Fog index or the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. They are blind to style and flair and count only syllables, words and sentences. However, they can be useful antidotes to wordiness.

What Oppenheimer did was to get seventy-one Stanford undergraduates to evaluate different writing samples. He created a "highly complex" version of each original text by replacing each noun, verb and adjective with its longest synonym.

People often employ this kind of writing when they want to sound knowledgeable and important or because they think writing like they speak will make them sound lightweight.

Thanks to Oppenheimer, we know that the opposite is, in fact, true. He says "one thing is certain, write as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as intelligent."

Short sentences work better online

It's not just short words. Short sentences are pretty nifty too, especially online. Jakob Neilsen, my guru, did some research into how people "read" web pages and it turns out that they don't. Instead, they flit around like a drunken butterfly reading a word here and a word there. Only 16 per cent of readers actually read web pages word by word. Why? Mainly because reading from a screen is 25 per cent slower than reading from paper and most people don't go to the web to read but to find information.

The good news is that writing for the web -- using lists, highlighted words, concise paragraphs and, most important, reducing the word count by half -- can increase online readability by up to 124 per cent. Choose shorter words at the same time and everyone will think you're a genius. Not a bad result for a little editing.

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 24th 2006, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Howard V.
GREAT article. I'm a copywriter for an ad agency that works a lot with financial institutions. I would like to have this piece coded onto a chip and implant it in the brain of every investment banker on earth.
Saturday May 27th 2006, 10:31 PM
Comment by: jeffrey S.
You failed to observe that not only short sentences but short essays like this are better than prolx ones.
Sunday May 28th 2006, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Jim T. B.
Intend to use shorter words in ads and auctions. I have an eBay store and hope to increase sells with tips from your article.

Thank-you Jim T.Brookins

Tuesday May 30th 2006, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Larry P.
Very good article. I am a word sleuth, and I have learn a goodly bunch of long "useless" words. When I use them, no one knows what I am talking about. I am in process of learning to use basic, simple short words, as well as keep my writing short, simple, concise and tight.
Wednesday May 31st 2006, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Dr. William C.
Me like.
Thursday June 1st 2006, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Theodore N.
Please, print one or more articles that specifically illustrate the effective use of short words and short sentences.
Friday June 2nd 2006, 7:29 AM
Comment by: Deborah R.
This article reminded me of a poem that appeared in a school weekly newsletter when I was in middle school in the 1960s. I no longer remember the author, but I do remember most of the poem --

Never fear big long words.
Big long words mean little things.
All big things have little names
Such as life and death, peace and war,
Dawn, day, love, hope, health, and home
Learn to use these words in a big way.
It's hard to do, but they say what you mean.

Perhaps you can help me find the full poem and its author?

Deborah Rubin
Monday June 12th 2006, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Diana F.
I think this is a good program
Monday June 19th 2006, 7:42 PM
Comment by: Krishna B.
It is not much impressive. By using this technique it is envisaged that the readability will improve by 124% that means it will be 31% instead of 25%. Is it worthwhile all the effort?
Tuesday July 18th 2006, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Donnie S.
Wow! Finally someone that shares my thoughts on writing. I write full time for a living (Ad copy/PR), and I wish I had a dime for every time that I told my boss or one of my coworkers that there is nothing wrong with writing the same way you speak. Writing is just another way of interacting with someone that you cannot speak to face to face...so why not write like they are sitting across the table from you.

and to Krishna your thinking about it all wrong...124% is equivelant to the phrase "more than double." If someone told you a way to "more than double" a return on investment in the stock market I think you'd probably jump at the chance.
Friday August 25th 2006, 9:06 AM
Prolix and verbose text always sounds disengenuous about the
intent of the author. However, for one who is habituated to the use
of an expanded vocabulary, he may justify it by saying he would need extra effort to translate the sentences bubbling up in his mind into simple sentences for the convenience of the audience. It takes a lot more effort to turn communications into compressed form if the goal was brevity and not ventillating the semantic breeze coming out of one's mind. I would go with the dictum that one must be natural in his mode of expression with an underlying effort to not to sound prolix. This would be better than a contorted piece of communication which hinges on cryptic brevity !!!
Wednesday August 30th 2006, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Dean E.
"Please, print one or more articles that specifically illustrate the effective use of short words and short sentences."

How about this? "Love it! Please post a follow-up with examples."

I could go on and on about the virtues of short, simple writing (and the techniques to achieve it), but I won't.

See Strunk and White.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Philip H.
Krishna Bansal questioned whether a 124% improvement "is worth all the effort." The example Krishna gave contains a huge math error that many people would make.

The comment mistakenly said that a 124% improvement would improve the readability from 25% to only 31%. Wrong. That's an improvement of only about 24%...not 124%.

The correct answer: Improving a 25% readability score by 124% would boost it from 25% to 56%. (25% + 1.24 X 25% = 56%)

More than doubling the readability index would likely appeal to most writers.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 8:04 AM
Comment by: Steve K.
Read this, do this, watch the change in your online readers. We did for our intranet, they changed for the better and they love it.
Thursday January 31st 2008, 3:13 AM
Comment by: Lawrence H.
I am not an enthusiastic proponent of over-utilizing excess verbosity when attempting to elaborate on a complex subject.

In other words, I hate over-explaining.
Thursday January 31st 2008, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Julianne A.
Write for the ignorant reader.
Thursday January 31st 2008, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Tommy S. (West Palm Beach, FL)
I'm a technical writer. I must write clear simple text for translation. So I'm in favor of brevity. I'm reminded of Mark Twain: "Writing is easy. All you have to do is throw out the wrong words."
Wednesday October 1st 2008, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Beth V. (Santa Cruz, CA)
While I see that in the verbal arts, where there are special cases of figurative speech, there might be something to the open notion that brevity is the soul of wit, even there, yes, even there, an absolute cannot be made.

Read Walt Whitman and tell me that you would prefer Strunk and White.

Once there was a place for erudition and rhetorical training. An art form all but lost, except maybe in some religious contexts where passion and enthusiasm carry us away within the spell of crafted language.

Were Strunk and White to be the language police with actual arms, we would all be stuffed up paranoids, twisting around to see who was watching when we let loose and grooved on a riff of the pure pleasure of what is known in rhetoric as "dilation."

Why introduce more police actions in world that is all too dominated by the political and social equivalents? Am I now to put any liquid prolixity over 3 ounces into a sanitized baggie for fear that it may blow up? What would it damage? It might blow your mind, but maybe minds need to be blown, away, completely away

Let the vast interwoven complexity of the English language be, just be, as it is, in its being, for it fashions a world and has great potential to refashion a new one from a micro level that no secret agency can stop. It is by nature polysemous and polymorphous perverse so why repress it even more until we all run around sounding like John Wayne with faux, ah, gee, shucks, ma'ams as we tighten our belts and flex our brawn. Foo! That is just a shuck, totally disingenuous. You have to train yourself to pretend that it is natural to be so clipped in the range of syntax and semantics. Why reduce what is already a bare minimalism in terms of range of motion and emotion? Strikes me as deeply anti-intellectual, almost American, to wish it were so and wish it were a "rule" is a fantasy of tyranny that I cannot countenance.

Enough! Too much! Blake's voice from Hell shouts in defiance. No way, dude, as they would say 'round these parts. Look up "rhetoric," "anaphora," "tropes," "dilation," and "sprezzatura." What we need is MORE not more LESS IS MORE. That is a tired old cliche that has done nothing but dumb down discourse to a snail's eye view. That is the type of thing that turns out to get Dumboyu in the White House because everyone is so unflippingbelievably afraid of intelligence. WTF!

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