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Having a large vocabulary is a great thing to have, but constantly using it to speak “up” (as opposed to speaking the common language) is not such a great idea. I'm a big advocate of having a diverse and well defined language skills, though I'm also all for being practical having people understand me.
Language and communication skills are very important for success and happiness, though some people take it a bit far. I don't mean knowing too many words or too well versed. I'm all for a high vocabulary, though there is a point when speaking to people that it goes from “oh, he's pretty smart” to “seems like he's a douchebag who's above as with a superiority complex.”
There is something to be said about sounding well educated, but there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. What is that line? It's not set in stone nor completely defined, though we can at least try to define it with a few do's and don'ts:
- Don't use language far above your audiences.
- Do know your audiences language level and accommodate up or down for that.
- Do use common language when in doubt of your audiences level.
- Do speak as simply and with clear language as much as possible.
- Do use easier to understand words in place of ‘complex' words when there is no linguistic nor clarity benefit to big words.
- Don't use complex language in writing and speaking targeted at the public audience.
- Do use bigger / more complex words when their use helps with clarity
Why you shouldn't (generally) use big words
Whether you agree with this or not this is true: most people don't have a large vernacular repertoire. This isn't to say something mean about most people, it's just the way the world is: people are generally not interested in words as they have other interests in life.
Your goal in any communication is to clearly convey your message, and if your audience doesn't understand you'll never get your point across. Not only is it possible that your message will be lost, it's possibly that you'll anger your listeners.
When people don't understand something, one natural reaction is to get frustrated. If your listeners are frustrated with you, you are significantly less likely to convince them. Doesn't matter if you're offering the cure for cancer, if people aren't listening to you because you're getting on their nerves you'll never get them to take your cure!
It's also possible that they could start ignoring you. Worse than being frustrated with you, is if they become uninterested in you and whatever you're talking about. At least if they're angry at you, you still have their attention. But if you've lost their attention … well, good luck! You'll need it.
Putting this (and more) into a list for why you shouldn't use big words (needlessly nor excessively):
- Your audience can lose interest in you and your topic.
- It's possible you're audience won't understand you.
- The meaning of your message could get lost in translation.
- You can frustrate your audience.
- You're audience is there to learn something, not get a vocabulary lesson (unless that's the goal).
- You'll confuse your audience.
When you should use big words
There is a time and place for big words, though you must be mindful to use these words carefully to enhance the meaning of your message … instead of just trying to sound smart. There are generally two scenarios when you'd want to use bigger words:
1) Using the larger, more complex word makes your message easier to understand and more clear. For example, using trepidation in place of fear and apprehension. 2) You're talking to linguistic savants who enjoy language play.
The former being the most common use (notice my use of the word former). The only caveat for this rule is using a more complex word when it's a better fit for flow and structure to keep things at a certain reading level.
It's all about balance
I asked my linguist savant friend, Paul Chapman, about this. He said:
… it becomes a question of balance. You must always consider your audience. The last statistics I heard on the matter, for example, indicated that newspapers are written on a third grade level–comprehensible to the scholar as well as to the mug on the street.
There was an example I didn't use in one of my blogs which would illustrate against [your] point: ‘Come to my house for a pendidigestory interludicule'. Or more simply, ‘come to my house for a snack.'
The point [I'm] making is one I discussed AGAINST in ‘Terms of Persuasion'. If you talk over people's heads, you make them feel stupid, or that you're ridiculing them, and that will work against your primary objective–to sell them goods or services. If you talk like an idiot, people will think you are one. If you make them struggle to understand you, you'll lose them.
I agree with the [that] you should develop as broad a range of vocabulary as possible–in both directions–because you will be communicating with a large variety of people with a multitude of philosophical and language-skill levels. Then, like an artist or an engineer, you will select the appropriate tools for the job at hand.
At the same time, you should be yourself, which is the principle factor (in my opinion) of any good communication. If you naturally talk like something from 19th Century Oxford University Press, have at it, though you may lose your younger audience. If, on the other hand, you sound more like a Saturday morning commercial for bubble gum, do that, although the cognoscenti will snub you . Words like ‘phlegmatic' and ‘plethora' aren't SO unusual, but should be held in reserve until you're sure of the person with whom you're communicating. ‘Auctorial' and ‘borborygmic' are very specific terms, and you would want to use them with members of that level of understanding. I once worked a case with our attorney who wrote in one of her briefs that the complainant had ‘unclean hands', which was ridiculous because he was constantly washing them. She meant (in lay terms) that he himself was not free of wrong doing.
There is a solution. You can use the ‘big' words, but include a less-lofty definition in the follow up. ‘What ameliorates your discomfort? What makes you feel better?'
Does that help?
The key is BALANCE.
That's where he and I agree. Having a large vocabulary is great as it gives you the largest possible skill set to pull from, but you should be careful of where and when you use it.
Examples of common language versus big words
I wanted to give you a few examples of common words and some big brother versions for fun and reference.
- Big –> Gargantuan
- Wordy –> Verbose –> Logorrheic
- Calm –> Phlegmatic
- Showy –> Ostentatious
- Improve –> Ameliorate
- Equal –> Commensurate
- Publish –> Promulgate
And there are more words. Many many more.
What's your favourite big word that can be replaced by a simple word?