Investigating needlessly complicated writing in society
George Orwell was onto something when he condemned the use of complex language in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” In the essay, Orwell encourages simple, clear language rather than the use of euphemisms and vague phrases that can disguise the real meaning of what is being said.
Seventy-one years after Orwell’s essay was published, the use of complex language still remains prevalent, particularly in academia. Today, academic writing tends to use long, sprawling words that can require a dictionary to decipher. Complex words in academia are often used in an attempt to appear more intelligent. However, according to Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, they can have the opposite effect.
“It turns out that people evaluate intelligence more on the clarity and quality of writing, than the sophistication of the vocabulary,” Oppenheimer said. “The result is that, controlling for the content of the argument, using long words tend to lead authors to look less intelligent, not more. The trick to smart-sounding writing is to convey your point clearly and effectively.”
This unnecessary use of intricate academic language can also isolate readers, both academics and not, from a text by obscuring the meaning and message behind it. Oppenheimer feels that obtuse writing simply makes an argument less likely to be heard. It can intimidate the reader and ultimately lead them to abandon the text overall.
Additionally, the use of complex academic language can perpetuate inequality in the classroom. Language is a form of cultural capital, a term coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and the kind of complex language often used in academic discourse at institutions of higher education usually favors those who are in the middle class of society or above.
This is because the education system is a largely middle class dominated institution, according to Sergio Cabrera, an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College.
“The institutional norms in schools tend to be set by people who are middle class, if you think about the [kinds] of people who are teachers and principals,” Cabrera said.
Due to the administrative makeup of schools, these institutions tend to place value on the cultural capital of the middle class as well as the upper class, which often includes a higher level vocabulary because it mirrors the kind of cultural capital middle class administrators typically value in their own lives.
Cabrera also explains that middle class institutions function in ways that encourage people to express, defend and explain their thoughts and feelings in a way that often differs from poor or working class social spaces, because of the linguistic cultural capital they enter schools with.
“It’s not about the quality of what’s communicated, but the style of what is communicated,” Cabrera said. “And prolonged exposure to middle class institutions can then pay off in schools.”
She added that the widespread acceptance of middle class linguistic cultural capital in schools reproduces social inequality by allowing those who possess this higher linguistic competence to enter the institution with the upper hand.
“Unbeknownst to [middle class teachers and administration], if they are valuing what is familiar to them, then they will tend to value people who come in with linguistic competences that are more similar to their own,” Cabrera said.
This may be one of the reasons the use of complex language remains so plentiful in higher education. Many students and professors alike will use complicated vocabulary words in order to appear more educated.
Oppenheimer said he has experienced this in his own classroom.
“I see lots of student essays where the students have obviously made use of the thesaurus to make their vocabulary more complex in an attempt to make me think their arguments are stronger than they really are,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”
Complex language isn’t just a problem in academia, though. Businesses also run into problems when their employees use language that is difficult to understand. However, there are organizations that are trying to change the overuse of complex language in the professional world.
The Plain Language Group, co-founded by Dr. Deborah S. Bosley — a former associate professor of English at Illinois State University — is one such organization. The group helps to make written content easy to understand, and serves the public by advocating for clarity in writing. The organization mostly works with Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies to create written language that is easier for consumers to understand.
“There is a lot of research that shows that companies who use less jargon have better reputations,” Bosley said. “Also, it decreases the amount of stress the reader feels because overly complex language can be very stressful because we put the responsibility on the reader to figure it out, which I think is unfair and, frankly, a bit unethical.”
Although the Plain Language Group primarily focuses on the language of corporations, simple language can also help academics in their careers, as well as help readers of academic texts unpack what they are reading.
“Academics who are capable of expressing complex ideas in a clear way tend to be the ones who thrive, both in academia and outside of it,” Oppenheimer said.
But if simple language appears to be the better choice, why do academics and companies continue to use complex language? Bosley offers one possible explanation.
“Every profession creates its own language and its own way of writing and/or speaking, so that means specifically the use of a lot of jargon, and they forget that they aren’t writing and/or speaking to experts,” she said. Bosley defines the jargon specific to a profession as a “discourse community.”
Additionally, Bosley noted that while some complexity is intentional, more often than not, it is just a case of a writer not realizing that what they are saying is not understandable to non-experts.
However, as the movement for plain language has gained momentum, there has been some resistance to using more straightforward language because of concerns about oversimplifying complex work.
But Bosley said simplification is not inherently bad. “I think there’s a misconception that simplifying misinformation is dumbing down,” she said. “I always say it’s not dumbing down, it’s wising up.”
Despite the continued use of complex language, Bosley believes that the country is moving toward improvement.
“Companies and government agencies are attempting more [regulation]… and part of that is, at least with corporations, because of regulations that require a whole slew of disclosures to be written in plain language,” she said.
One of those regulations is the Plain Writing Act, which Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. This act requires federal agencies to provide clear information to citizens that the public can understand and use. Additionally, in 2011, Obama issued an executive order stating the government must make sure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language and easy to understand.
While government regulations are a step in the right direction, Bosley feels that real change will come when people start demanding it from everyday institutions. She foresees the use of simple language becoming more prominent in the coming years.
“People have a right to understand information that affects their lives,” she said.
Rae Harris is a third-year journalism major who has resorted to carrying around a dictionary everywhere. You can email them at email@example.com.