Why Are Short Words More Effective Than Long Ones?

Don’t we go on and on about it. Copywriters are always telling you to use shorts words instead of long ones.

Here are just a few blogs where I talk about them being more effective:

Copywriting 101: Keep it Simple, Stupid

Make Your Copy More Convincing (With the Appliance of Science)

It’s Not Big and It’s Not Clever: How Not to Sound Like David Brent

But have you ever wondered why?

Yes, we love to go on. Yes, we love the sound of our own voices.

But we also say it because it’s true.

As I mentioned in the second post above:

In his article, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”, Danny Oppenheimer (from Princeton University) refuted the myth that big words make you sound clever.


He showed that using longer words than necessary to explain familiar concepts is seen as a sign of low intelligence and poor credibility.

[Here’s a link to the original paper]

Why short words are more effective than long ones

Oppenheimer found that using simple language, which is easier to process, leads to increased assessments of truth, confidence and liking in the reader. He didn’t say don’t ever use long words. He said don’t use long words to try and sound clever because it will have the opposite effect. He was talking about academic writing but the lessons have a broader application.

If your readers believe you, have confidence in what you’re saying and like you, well, you’re doing pretty well. Your readers will trust you, which gives you credibility, and we all know the marketing mantra: People have to know, like and trust you to buy from you! Using long, supposedly intelligent-sounding words won’t help.

why smaller words are better

There have been lots of studies into the size of a fluent English speaker’s vocabulary. They all come out with different answers but the average seems to between 20,000 and 35,000 words. By 5, we know roughly 5000 words, by 12 we know about 12,000, and the number we pick up throughout our lives varies widely depending on education and career. If you’re a lawyer, for example, there’s a large legal language to learn, less so most other professions.

What the studies agree on is that nearly all of us use just 1000 words to communicate most of the time.

Why is that?

Because those 1000 words are easy to access in our crowded brains but also because that’s all we need to get our message across.

Using a smaller vocabulary leads to greater clarity and easier processing (the ‘fluency of processing’ Oppenheimer talked about). Which in turn leads to higher judgments of truth, confidence and liking in our readers. Which leads to more trust. Which leads to more credibility. Which leads to more successful copy.

And that’s why we go on about it!


P.S. When I was doing my research, a few studies mentioned Shakespeare. No one really knows how many words he knew (and it’s a bit late to ask him) but the estimates are between 30,000 and 65,000. It seems likely that Shakespeare had a much bigger vocabulary than we do, so if the average person knows 20,000 to 35,000 words, I reckon he knew closer to 65,000 than 30,000.

P.P.S. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 171,476 words in current usage. To get an idea of how many that is, novels are usually around the 100,000-word mark. Even Shakespeare, if he was alive today, would know less than half of all English words. But I still think he’d be pretty good at Scrabble.

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