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The Write Stuff: Want to Sound Smart?

The Write Stuff: Want to Sound Smart?

March 2021

By Alan Crawford
Impact Editor

Some people are just good at their jobs and, in case there is any doubt about it, they’ll tell you so — in just those terms. But others will describe their abilities as “their tendency to synergistically leverage strategic competitive advantages.”

Instead of saying they are studying why monkeys walk on the ground, some academics will say their research involves “elucidating the antecedents of upright striding vertical bipedality on horizontal terrestrial substrates by non-human primates.”

Why do people talk and write that way?

Zachariah Brown and Adam Galinsky of Columbia and the University of Southern California, respectively, wanted to find out, so they examined 64,000 dissertations from more than 200 colleges and universities and conducted a number of experimental studies. In layman’s terms, they discovered that people who want to sound smart use complicated language when they don’t need to, usually in an effort to fit in and be accepted by their peers.

Jargon, the researchers find, is a verbal form of conspicuous consumption. Using language that makes no sense except within the group one hopes to impress and be accepted by, therefore, functions as a kind of status symbol.

And here’s the irony. Those with the least status within the group — summer interns, for instance — are the most likely to adopt convoluted in-group verbiage, while those with the greatest status are least likely to talk and write that way. Newcomers who are eager to fit in sacrifice “conversational clarity” in the interests of “audience evaluations.” They care more about showing that they know the lingo than actually being understood when they use it.

Now, to be fair, there is a place for jargon, and there are situations in which there is no substitute for it. Technical words, to use the Merriam-Webster definition, express “special and usually practical knowledge especially of a mechanical or scientific subject,” and there’s no way around it.

Brown and Galinsky refer, for example, to solar system dynamics and the term “nutation,” which refers to “short-period oscillations in the motion of the pole of rotation of a freely rotating body that is undergoing torque from external gravitational forces.” Clearly, there is no “reasonably succinct, less formal or broadly accessible alternative” to nutation — and there is no reason there should be.

There are situations in which technical language is perfectly fine, and it can save a lot of time when specialists talk to each other. Nutation is a kind of shorthand. Imagine trying to define it every time you needed to refer to it.

But such instances are rare. So, if you want to sound like you have some experience and really know what you’re talking about, use clear and direct language. If you want to sound insecure, pile on the jargon.


An Andy Borowitz, Dave Barry or Art Buchwald only come around about one per generation, so it’s a stretch to expect much in the way of comic relief from your run-of-the-mill political reporters and pundits. Which is also why their attempts at humor are often so grating to the ear. Not so long ago, the ones who wanted to sound funny liked to refer to candidates in presidential primaries as emerging from a “clown car.” Dana Milbank, who fancies himself The Washington Post’s resident satirist, has even used the term to refer to members of Congress with whom he disagrees — as late as last year. Now the reporters and columnists and talking heads all like to depict politicians and even bureaucrats dealing with complicated situations in which new problems repeatedly present themselves as playing “whack-a-mole.” That was clever the first time we heard it, which was over 10 years ago. Now it’s just stale and sad. So cut it out. Right now.

Alan Crawford write stuff

Alan Crawford
Editor, Impact Newsletter
804.212.9574 | [email protected]

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