There are a lot of articles out there warning you not to use pretentious language in your writing, wagging a finger at the use of “big words to sound smart”. While there’s validity in avoiding talking like an asshat, this argument assumes that people only use “big words” to inflate a fragile ego. I’ve seen a lot of smart writing get chopped down before, labelled as pretentious and criticized for talking down to the reader. A couple things on this.

Big Words Aren’t The Only Way To Show Pretense

When I read scathing articles that scold “flowery” writing while seemingly ignoring other blatant “Look at me!” strategies, I can’t help raising an eyebrow. Many well-respected writers may avoid using jargon or fluff words, but write with a tone that screams “Listen to me; I am an authority.”

Yet coming across as an authority is almost universally encouraged. You’re simply using your tone, rather than the words themselves, to convey validity. I don’t see it as all that different than, as critics put it, “hiding behind your words to sound smarter than you are.”

“But I am an authority on this topic! Why is my playing the part bad?” It’s not, inherently. But I would argue neither is the use of robust language, inherently. Acting morally superior simply because you avoided ‘flowery’ language can ring hollow. That writer could simply say “What if I am smart? I’m not trying to prove anything by using ‘fancy’ words; it’s just how I talk.”

If you’re not rubbing it in people’s faces or using sophisticated language merely to stroke your own ego, it’s just writing.

What about a site with big, flashy headlines and graphics? Couldn’t you argue that this person is hiding behind a fancy-looking site to embolden their content? Using watered-down language isn’t going to magically balance a very fluffy website design.

Why bring that up? Because some of the same writers that are praised for their use of language fall short silently in these other areas. That doesn’t make them bad writers, and it doesn’t necessarily make any of them pretentious. There is, however, a glaring inconsistency in various experts saying on one hand, “Don’t base your content on what others think; write for you,” then turn around and say, “Well, try not to alienate people by using flowery language.”

And to some of these critics out there, you know what’s really arrogant? Calling a writing style universally bad simply because you don’t care for it.