Jeremy Côté


Should I Use A Complicated Word?

When communicating, there is always this fine balance to be struck between adding enough technical jargon and terms to be precise, while at the same time not overdoing it to the point that a reader has to have a dictionary beside them in order to understand what they are reading. The worst feeling I’ve ever had while reading is going through a paragraph and not even being able to grasp anything that the author is saying. This is a pretty big sign that something has gone wrong. Science is a big culprit for these kinds of errors. Some articles are way too technical, while others are so empty that they are like husks of corpses, barely the thing the author wanted to communicate.

To combat this, many people will suggest that you should simplify your vocabulary. You don’t need to necessarily dumb down what you’re saying, but you should write in a way that is accessible to all. This means eliminating long words for shorter synonyms, and not over explaining when a short explanation will do.

These are good ideas, but every time I hear them, I think to myself, “But I want to use these new words I’ve learned!” Is that such a bad want?

I don’t think so. I think there’s always a place for using different words than the one thousand most popular words in your language (link to xkcd). The reality is that nobody has come across the exact combination of words you have, so there will always be some sort of asynchronous gap between the set of words they know and what you know. Sometimes, this will tip in your favour. Other times, not so much.

Therefore, it does not make reasonable sense to limit one’s words to what both parties know, because you don’t know every single person in your audience. So don’t worry about using words that are a little more complex.

With that being said, there are two strategies that I employ in order to use words that may not be as known to a general population.

Define it

This one is fairly obvious. Defining the word you use instantly puts you and your audience on the same page. Even better, it means that any difference between the definition they use and the one you use is eradicated. I would use this when introducing scientific jargon, because it’s usually important to have the words make sense from the outset. By explicitly defining the term, you ensure no confusion.

Wrap it

For words that are more complex but aren’t necessarily technical scientific terms, I like to “wrap them” inside the sentence. What this means is that I’ll craft the sentence in such a way that (hopefully) the reader will glean the meaning of the word if they don’t already know it, and it will enhance the sentence if a reader does know it. To do this, the context of the sentence (or even paragraph) should lead the reader to the right conclusion for what that word should mean. Therefore, it doesn’t do any harm for those who don’t know it.

What’s important to note about this method is that only one word is “new” in the sentence. If multiple words in the sentence are complicated or rare, then the ability of the sentence to give meaning to those words is compromised.

I’ve read a lot of science books, articles, and other content, and I’ve always hated when I looked a word up inside of a sentence and I see that it is from “Old English” or the like. At that point, I consider the word pretty exotic. If one word is like that, it’s not a big deal. However, if the whole sentence is like some bad imitation of Old English writing while talking about computers, we have a problem. Using the wrapping method can solve this problem and give your text a bit of flair, while defining technical scientific terms is the best way to go when you’re introducing science into the equation.

Remember: your communication is not supposed to be about showing off how many words you know. Instead, it should be about getting a message across. You can introduce new words to an audience, but you have to be careful while doing so.