Why using big words in VCE essays can make you look dumber

Lisa Tran

September 1, 2015

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Over the years I have seen many exceptional essays. What has really surprised me in the past is when I compare high-scoring essays. In one instance, I read one English student's essay (raw study score of 50) after another student's (raw study score of 46). What do you think contrasts between a student who achieves 50 and a student who achieves 46 (bearing in mind of course, that these two scores are already amazing!)? For me, I had assumed that a major contributor to the perfect score of 50 must be better vocabulary. You would think so too right?

NO! In fact, the student of 46 had embedded heaps of complex and amazing-sounding words in her essay - much more than those used by the student who obtained a 50. Oddly, the perfect scorer had hardly any complex vocabulary in her piece. But this ironically, was the strength of her essay. Because she wasted little time on trying to throw in lots of fancy vocabulary, she was able to focus on exploring complex ideas in her essay instead. This is what examiners are after. So if you're struggling with vocabulary, don't worry - not all hope is lost!

One of the biggest struggles is to 'improve vocabulary' in VCE. So many students are caught up trying to improve their vocabulary or using 'big words' that they don't realise the worst thing yet: using bigger words can actually hurt your essay. Yes, you read it right. Even research has actually found that using complex or big words in an essay can backfire for the student!

Reasons why using big words can worsen your essay:

1. Obstructs clarity of ideas.

Readability is the ease with which a written text can be understood by the reader. In other words, how easy it is to read an essay and how enjoyable that read is. I'm sure you've read a novel in the past that was quite difficult to read because of its extensive vocabulary. On the other hand, you will find a book much more enjoyable to read when you're not struggling your whole way through deciphering words. The same applies to essays. Examiners focus heavily on your exploration and interpretation of ideas. If you have great ideas, only to overload with vocabulary just look to make yourself look smarter, it's only going to make it harder for your examiner. Just like if you had simplistic ideas and filled your essay with fancy vocabulary, it's not going to make the idea seem any more insightful. See the example below:

Student 1: 'In a plethora of elements gender inequalities prevail over the women of Nigeria.'

Student 2:  'Gender inequalities prevail over women's lives in Nigeria.'

The 'plethora of elements' is just another way of saying 'several aspects'. By trying to use nice vocabulary, this student actually reduced the meaning of their sentence, making it harder for the teacher to understand the student's idea. Remember to keep your essays straightforward, don't drown them with vocabulary that's unnecessary.

2. You seem dumber.

No offence. Writing with bigger words doesn't mean you're smarter. It is very easy to pick up when a student is simply using a thesaurus to find synonyms - because your sentence will look like this: basic basic basic COMPLEX basic basic COMPLEX basic basic. There is a clear discrepancy! Don't use 'utilise' when you can just write 'use'. You seem pompous (no offence, again!). Write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent! This meme below sums up the point very well:

3. You're using it wrong.

Using a similar word is not always the RIGHT word. Let's take the word 'persuade' as an example. We're always trying to find new synonyms for 'persuade' in Language Analysis (and I do have a list for you here). The word 'entice' is by no means similar to the word 'coerce' because of the different connotations they are both associated to. To entice is to persuade through attraction or tempting the reader by offering an advantage, whereas to coerce is to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats. Be wise when you choose synonyms, because they do not carry the exact same meaning as the original word you intended to use!

KEY TIP: Do not use big words, do not use small words, use the RIGHT words.

So, how do you find the right word bank for you?

The conditions of your vocabulary bank should be suited to your specific needs. A focus on a need or theme enables more visible connections within the vocabulary bank. Having those connections will make it easier to 'memorise' new terms. Instead of compiling a dense 20-page glossary, try breaking your vocabulary bank up into smaller, specific sections like 'new verbs'.

Now, let's find new verbs instead of the typical bolded words below to express the author's intention:

  • The author argues
  • The author shows  
  • The author criticises
  • The author supports

- Branch off 'argue' (Fervent tone): contends, asserts, posits, proffers…

- Branch off 'shows' (Neutral tone): demonstrates, exposes, elucidates, delineates, explicates…

- Branch off 'criticises' (Negative tone): condemns, denigrates, lampoons, parodies…

- Branch off 'supports' (Positive tone): praises, endorses, exalts, lauds…


Next, take your new vocabulary from storage to use:

After clarifying their definitions, try using some of your new words in a sentence or a paragraph, relating to either your texts or analysing argument. You can also extend your vocabulary bank by adapting the words to different sentence structures:

Example 1

Original sentence: The author criticises the superficiality of our consumerist culture.

Substitution:Theauthor condemns the superficiality of our consumerist culture.

Adaptation: In a condemnatory tone, the author delineates the ostentation of our consumerist culture.


Example 2

Original sentence: The author argues that gender is an arbitrary concept.

Substitution: The author asserts that gender is an arbitrary concept.

Adaptation: Asserting that gender is an arbitrary concept, the author explicates the categorist nature of human understanding.

Using convoluted expressions can be fun or exasperating! Whilst demonstrating extensive vocabulary may raise your mark, the key is to ensure harmony between your words and your understanding.

Remember: Do not use big words, do not use small words, use the RIGHT words.

The second half of this blog post was written by Joyce Ling.

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