Big Words Dont Make You Sound Clever

36 comments
Source Title:
Choice of Vocabulary
Story Text:

As Graywolf points out, big words dont make you sound clever, they make you sound like a tit...

For example here is the third sentence in a new document from Orion:

This leads to a perception mismatch that makes more than one metric irrelevant.

WTF? Have you ever watched Sesame Street, School House Rock or Bill Nye the Science Guy? Big words don't help to make your work any easier to understand. To prove my point I'll rewrite the sentence:

This causes a misunderstanding in the interpretation of the document, making the tools used to analyze it useless.

Damn right GW. There's been a little club like thing going on in certain online fora for a while now, the idea appears to be to use the largest words you can in the most obscure way, whilst referencing as many white papers on Search as possible.

Clever?

Comments

Perhaps a Readability Test may help

There's a great Readability Test of any web page that would be useful here. It's from Juicy Studio
http://www.juicystudio.com/fog/index.asp

It helps identify what audience may be able to understand whatever you've written. :)

That is way cool...

Luckily I have a (natural) disposition to use small words (6.18FOG - not bad eh) :-]

Its just a hoax

designed to get SEOs off of useful endeavors.

Thank you Graywolf!

And thank you Nick for posting that.

That sort of thing has been a pet peeve of mine forever. There have actually been studies done that seem to prove that using big complicated words when little words will suffice, doesn't make people think you're smarter, they make them think you're dumber.

It doesn't matter who your target audience is, you should always write in a way that anyone can understand.

Unfortunately, high school and college English classes teach kids the exact opposite. I was trying to explain to my daughter who is a senior in high school that she could write simpler sentences, but she claimed that she was doing it the way the teacher taught. [rolleyes]

I Love Big Words

But I don't like to encounter them when they aren't needed. Much like running into stop lights at intersections at which there is rarely any traffic. Slows me down. In the GEB book, Douglas Hofstadter does a remarkable job of using common vocabulary words to explain extremely complex concepts, but sometimes, precision demands that he use a five dollar word. In those instances, his usage is acceptable.

When vocabulary gets in the way of understanding it becomes a nuisance. On the other hand, there's a current academic push toward allowing students to write nearly anything as long as it can be "understood". I'm not a prescriptivist, but I don't like that trend either.

 

Quote:
But I don't like to encounter them when they aren't needed.

Precisely.

I have a reasonable vocabulary, and i wont go out of my way to use small words, but i do like to talk sense. That means that making your thoughts understandable is paramount, not secondary.

I'll use a long word, but only if it's appropriate.

There's no reason for this

I think you're targeting the wrong person with this accusation. There are plenty of people who do try to use "big words" to make themselves seem more important than they are, but this is not the case with Dr. Garcia.

After having met him and spent some serious time with him, I know that his motivations, background and knowledge levels are beyond assail from someone with my degree of understanding.

English is also Dr. Garcia's second language, and I think he has made an extraordinary effort to communicate and build bridges between the SEO and IR communities.

The paper you're linking to has to be one of the most important works to appear in SEO this year (along with the new Google patent). If you're having trouble understanding parts of it, Orion will be happy to help explain it at SEW. Why, why, why would someone criticize him for this?

 

This leads to a perception mismatch that makes more than one metric irrelevant.

I am certainly intelligent enough to be able to understand that sentence, but frankly I don't want to have to think about what I am reading unless it is a concept that needs thinking about. That sentence has no information in it that should require thinking; therefore, it should have been written differently. When reading many of the SEO white papers that float around, my eyes glaze over and I end up just skimming for the main points. If what you write is so difficult to read and/or so boring because of its ridiculous use of the English language, then what have you gained? Have you engaged your reader? In many cases, you have probably lost your reader. Pity.

Kant Knew His Stuff Too

But to paraphrase a critique of his writing style, I offer,

Kant's writing is like thunder from the heavens, without the illumination of lightning.

Goes something like that anyway...

Randfish, I didn't seen any criticism of his knowledge of the subject, just his style. He may indeed be making an extraordinary effort to communicate, but it is obvious that some people find fault with his finished product. I don't think anyone is saying that he chose "big words" to appear important, just that his style isn't particularly engaging.

Luckily, push and pop, recursion, (what about recursion and unpredictability?), exotic and prosaic isomorphisms can be understood readily by reading the dialogue of Achilles and the Tortoise. Formal systems and fugues, symbols and meaning, and information revealers, damn Stuntdubl, bet ya didn't think GEB would have any bearing on KWD or SEO eh? ;)

 

Just to emphasize I don't think he doesn't know what he's talking about, quite the opposite, it's just hard for me to understand what he's talking about. I'm spending more brain power trying to simplfy it instead of comprehending it.

To quote Albert Einstein "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

OK, I conceed

You're right. He may be making a great effort, but it still is not easy to understand. What I take issue with was the tone and manner of the post, suggesting that this writer (who absolutely is both Orion from SEW and Dr. E. Garcia of MiIslita.com, Nick!!), was using the "big words" to make himself seem more credible/knowledgable/important.

I too, like to take complex documents (many of them from Dr. Garcia) and re-write that information in a more universally comprehensible way. SEOmoz is nearly 1/2 just that - re-writing other's works to make them understandable to the layperson.

If you want to bash on someone about using big words to sound important, it should be me - I'm sure I've done it once or twice. Dr. Garcia/Orion is in another realm - academia, where his colleagues and peers are accustomed to this type of discourse. We certainly can't fault him for his effort, even if we do wish for a more plain-English writing style.

 

Quote:
If you want to bash on someone about using big words to sound important, it should be me - I'm sure I've done it once or twice. Dr. Garcia/Orion is another realm - academia, where his colleagues and peers are accustomed to this type of discourse. We certainly can't fault him for his effort, even if we do wish for a more plain-English writing style.

Take a fucking break mate - if you get up his arse any further we'll never find you again :)

I didnt even read the damn thing, im not particulary knocking him, just this general trend to prance around like schmucks in seo forums citing research papers to impress peers.

It bores the arse off me.

it's always different reading other fields

- and sometimes hard as well. Methinks DG tried to make that same point with the jargon above *lol*

Thing is, in any trade or field (or, any of the Sciences for that matter) you tend to use jargon. You simply use certain words when speaking to peers, because using those words simplify what you are trying to say, so that you end up speaking more efficiently than you would otherwise. The reason this happens is that peers have a similar understanding of each of those words.

SEO's have the same thing (and SEO is one of those terms, along with "backlinks", "SERPs", "algo", "recips", and so on). For any such field, the more time you spend on it, the more jargon tends to creep into your daily language. The difference is only that some speak those words as they are intended, while other spice up their language with them in order to sound clever, or as a cover up for things that are known but not understood. In the latter cases, if you really understand what they're saying, they usually don't sound clever at all.

For a specialist it will often be quite difficult to use other words than s/he normally does when speaking about his/her work. It will simply "feel wrong", as in "it's a lot less precise", and perhaps even "i don't really know other words for this", or "if i should explain this phrase i would have to write a book in stead". So, it's usually hard for that type of people to make their thoughts understandable to people with different backgrounds.

All that said, Nick, Graywolf, DG, imho you're 100% right. If you can you should try only using common words. Especially if you're trying to reach people that have a different background than you. All i'm saying is that this is not always as easy as it sounds.

---
Added:
That Juicy Studio thing is a great tool, thanks :-)

 

so are we indulging in floccinaucinihilipilification?

and does it make you go blind?

It can be very difficult to simplify

Rand, I think you are correct that being from academia, probably has a lot to do with Orion's writing style. And I'm also sure that the language thing also has an effect.

Speaking in general terms, and not specifically about Orion's writing, it's very hard for some very technical people to simplify their writing. It just is. That's what good technical editors are for.

When I helped edit Chris Ridings PageRank paper, it was no easy task! Chris is already a great writer, but he's still a programmer at heart. At the time, I didn't understand PageRank very well at all, so first I had to read his paper as he wrote it, many times over. Then I had to ask him things like, "when you said this, did you simply mean this"? Often the answer would be yes, or he would explain further what he meant, and then I would boil it down to the simplest of terms.

Anyone who writes technical papers would be smart to have a technical editor who can do this for them, as it opens up their words to much more of the general population. I would be much more inclined to read Orion's papers, and heck, even Mike Grehan's if they had someone (like me) do the boiling down first. It's usually not cost effective for most of these people to do this, however, as it is so time consuming.

Now You're Bashing in the Right Place

Quote:
Take a fucking break mate - if you get up his arse any further we'll never find you again :)

Well, I admit to being way too impressed with his work. I'm always surprised when other people aren't. And hey, you can find me and Dr. G in Toronto next week - are you coming? I'll buy you a round!

Quote:
ADDED: Im pretty sure that Garcia is not the same guy that posts under the nick "orion" at SEW

Can you remove that Nick - I'm sure by now you're aware it is the same person. Wouldn't want to spread any bad information :)

Quote:
I would be much more inclined to read Orion's papers, and heck, even Mike Grehan's if they had someone (like me) do the boiling down first. It's usually not cost effective for most of these people to do this, however, as it is so time consuming.

You're right on Jill. I think more people would read these papers and posts if the language was clearer. There's probably two ways this can go - either the technical SEOs and programmers get better at writing, or we get better at reading & comprehending...

Maybe they could put some of this stuff on the SAT in the reading comprehension area - I always hated that stuff and now here I am defending it.. What a long road we travel. :)

 

There's probably two ways this can go - either the technical SEOs and programmers get better at writing, or we get better at reading & comprehending

Dude are you kidding me? It’s my fault that I don’t understand? Obviously since he’s a PHD we all must be his mental inferior, we should simply be pleased to stand near his pedestal and bask in the glow of his obvious intellectual superiority ... get a grip.

Let’s not forget that the most fundamental role of a professor or teacher, at any level, is to teach. So while I’m quite certain he has a very good grasp of his subject matter, I like many others, feel he isn’t doing a good job teaching it to others. So as much as I’d like to read it, I now have to decide is sitting down and spending several hours dissecting the work, worth it?

And Now For Something

Completely Different. ;)

A Humorous Look At Recursion It's a .ram file. Sorry, only way I could find it.

Graywolf, we could team up and make a business out of simplifying the complicated. It's really not that complicated... ;)

Hey, give him a break

especially if English is his second language!
No basic contention with either graywolf's rewording or all others' remarks re readability, complexity issues, technical jargon's necessity, etc. etc.
And yes, writing in an easy-to-understand manner isn't at all an easy task (as is writing in general). Guess why so many celebs and politicians have to rely on ghost writers for their work.

But - for a non-native speaker it's really double as hard, especially if you're accustomed to one set of language/jargon (vocabulary, syntax, etc.) e. g. within your academic field, but not to another (e. g. the one SEOs unfamiliar with that kind of academic prose tend to expect).

Bridging that gap is difficult enough - for a second or third language speaker possibly not extremely well talented as a popular, easy-to-read writer in the first place (and most techies I happen to know plain aren't - which doesn't disqualify them one bit as experts in their respective fields) it's like squaring the circle.

And then - a technical paper isn't supposed to be anything but reading fodder for those sufficiently qualified to understand it in the first place. Else, "Dummy books" would be all we'd ever get and where would that leave us beyond a general self-gratulatory fuzziness of having everything dumbed down enough to at least give the impression (however falsely) of being "democratic" ...

Yes, his prose is quite turgid at times (and not just in this paper, either) - but hell, if he's no professional word worker, who are we to denounce it?

And yes, randfish, a competent co-editor might do his work a load of good within the SEO field - but how realistic is that for texts he is essentially sharing for free? Who'll pick up that particular tab?

Finally, as a second language English speaker myself with a 15 year record as a professional translator, let me tell you that English actually is - contrary to popular conception - quite unlearnable once you really dig into it. (Which is why so many even highly educated native speakers have a hell of a time mastering it.)

It is, however, as has been pointed out by others long before me, probably the one language you can learn to speak badly the fastest.

Incompetent shoddiness and wilfull pomposity of style is one thing (and rightly so denounced) - sheer incapacity or lack of time/resources to master all the fineries of a foreign language to appease its native speakers quite another.

Compare this thread ...

I'm chuckling when I compare this thread with a related discussion back in March:
http://www.threadwatch.org/node/1890

Jill is right that savvy editing can seriously improve the usefulness of a document.

Two way street...

All points well taken, but in the past decade (or two) there has been a trend towards simplifying written and verbal communication into such simple, and simplistic, statements that all richness, specificity and clarity is lost. As in all things balance is the key. Jargon and verbosity are signs of pompus idiots. Full use of our glorious language OTOH, is increasingly scarce these days, sadly.

 

If all those papers were easy to read, everyone would be a successful SEO. We can't have that, now can we??

Perhaps if we pay the man for his efforts, he can be "arsed" to change his language :-]

be glad if it's just words

- some of the papers i've had to read back in the days were mostly in greek letters, with operators in stead of punctuation (and here, a Monty Python skit/sketch comes to mind). Well, back then i could, nowadays not really - my math language is a little rusty because of lack of use.

You may have been kidding, but...

Quote:
If all those papers were easy to read, everyone would be a successful SEO. We can't have that, now can we??

This is not too far off from the truth. When I was first telling all I knew about how to get high rankings, there weren't many others willing to tell all. I had many an SEO of the day none too pleased with me!

It's more commonplace now, as I think most figured if you can't 'em, join 'em!

Orwell

It's an old complaint, Orwell gave a good example of it 50 years ago:

Good English:

Quote:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Translated into waffle:

Quote:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Poooot! Snf.

...Phew, had I not blown my nose just in time, my head would have exploded :o)

I had trouble with both sentences. Who's that Orwell guy anyway, does he post at SEW??? (JK)

Have a look at the Plain English Campaign

Plain English Campaign , an independent pressure group fighting for public information to be written in plain English.

They hand out Golden Bulls each year for the worst example of gobbledegook. That link will take you to the awards this year, and there are links there to previous archives of awards.

They also do awards for the use of good plain English.

Googleness...

That says it all.

Frontal Lobe Envy

Admit it -- it's just frontal lobe envy, isn't it?

Simplified

I have tried simplifying Dr. Garcia(Orion's) article. You can view it here

You should be ashamed

What has this guy done to deserve this? Freely sharing his knowledge with us in his second language - This thread is one of the most mean spirited things I've read in a long time.

Words of the day - Petty, small minded, arrogant, childish

This the sort of thing that surfaces when bloggers and other such "writers" run out of intelligent/worthwhile things to say.

>>Take a fucking break mate - if you get up his arse any further we'll never find you again :)

Clever?

I am with serious

Dr. Garcia was kind enough to share his knowledge with us, if one can't make sense what he says, its not his fault. He is not being payed to make people understand.

 

You need to look at the original point - that paper is a useful example of common "problem" only.

There is more to the thread than you're reading i think...

 

Words of the day - Petty, small minded, arrogant, childish

I inveigh to the non-quantitative analysis that my observations, represent in any way that I possess a diminutive higher central nervous system, or have a supercilious, peremptory, or an imperious attitude, as my emotional and cognitative developmental state is profusely superior to that of a puerile adolescent.

-

Pardon?

Graywolf isn't paid to make

you understand, either. :-)

And I second Nick's input - waxing all personal about it (both on the offensive and on the defensive side) isn't very constructive, i. e. it doesn't add value to the discussion at hand.

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