Friday, September 16, 2011

Why trying to sound smarter can make you seem dumb

Takeaway: Think using big words makes you sound smarter? Think again.

If I had to pick one grammatical blunder that annoys me more than any other it would be the mangling of direct objects in an attempt to sound smarter. More specifically, how some people will use “I’ incorrectly, as in, “My grandfather left his money to her and I.” One of my elementary school teachers seared into my head an easy technique for checking this kind of construction-remove the first direct object phrase (her and) then see if the sentence makes sense. In this case it would be “My grandfather left his money to I.” Of course, this is not correct–the word “I” should be “me.”

But I see and hear that construction all the time–on scripted television shows, on the news, everywhere. Why? My only guess is that students who try to use “me and him” as subjects of a sentence are either smacked by their grammar teachers or ridiculed openly as hicks so they learn pretty quickly not to do it. But then they overcompensate and try to use “I” as a direct object when it shouldn’t be.

I also do a lot of editing in my line of work. I am constantly seeing “hundred dollar words” used in place of smaller, simpler words that mean the same thing (utilize instead of use, possesses instead of has) in an attempt to sound smarter. This practice actually has the opposite effect for the reader, according to one study. Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, took a handful of writing samples and used a thesaurus to replace the simple words with needlessly flowery ones-a practice he said he’d seen used quite often by techies and business people.

The result? As the grandiosity and complexity of the language increased, the judges’ estimation of the intelligence of the authors decreased.

So are you guilty of this? Have you seen this in others? What are some of the worst offenders of the “trying to sound smart” way of communicating that you’ve seen?

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