Writing with Wylie: The Dangers of Word Choice: Why Convoluted Terms Scare Off Readers

May 1, 2011

Which of these food additives is more dangerous: Hnegripitrom or Magnalroxate?

Most people said the more difficult to pronounce Hnegripitrom was the most hazardous in a 2006 study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan.

But neither is really a food additive. (In fact, neither is really a word.) So why does one seem more dangerous?

People think things with names that are hard to pronounce are riskier than things with easier names. Participants in the study also rated amusement-park rides more likely to make them sick when their names were difficult to pronounce.

Words matter. Readers prefer words that are:
Fluent: Short, simple and easy-to-pronounce words work best.
Familiar: The more often readers are exposed to words, the more they like them.
Facile: People find pleasant-sounding language — rhyming statements, for instance — more believable.

In addition to scaring off readers, long, complex, difficult-to-pronounce words have other dangers:

1. Reduce reading ease
Shorter words make your copy easier to read.  Every readability index uses word length as a measure of reading ease.

That doesn’t mean that readers are confused by long words. It means that as we add syllables, we add to the time and energy that it takes people to read our copy.

“Readers may know that utilize means use and optimum means best,” writes Skip Boyer, former executive producer and director of executive communication at Best Western International, Inc. “But why make them translate?”

2. Make you seem not so smart
Using stuffy words makes you sound stuffy — maybe even stupid. People who use big words when smaller ones will do sound less intelligent, according to a 2003 study by Daniel Oppenheimer, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University.

3. Sound too bureaucratic
When a speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society,” FDR changed it to: “We’re going to make a country in which no one is left out.”

This makes sense. Simpler words are more accessible — and less self-important. Chris Winters, corporate communicator at Entergy Corp., calls stuffy, bureaucratic prose the “Look, ma! I’m writing!” approach.

Do you want to avoid scaring your reader off?  Then use mostly one- to two-syllable words.

Copyright © 2011 Ann Wylie.  All rights reserved.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.


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