Ten Dollar Words in Resumes: Too Much of a Good Thing?


By Cathy Milton.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of online resumes. I’ve been doing this as part of a personal research project, the goal of which is to find fresh, clear descriptive words and phrases.

A few of the resumes I found were unintentionally funny. Funny, because in the quest to sound professional, accomplished, and important, some of the documents contained strings of inaccessible – sometimes indecipherable – “ten-dollar” words. I had to read them several times to extract their meaning.

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, a ten-dollar word is defined as a long, complex word used in place of a shorter, clearer, more common word. You might wonder why anyone would choose to deliberately use such a word.

I’m sure that there are many reasons, but I tend to believe that we are attracted to ten-dollar words because they appear impressive, and sometimes, convey a lot of information in just a single word. For example, if we use the word ‘impeccable’ to describe a client, it conveys many desirable qualities – a person whose work is flawless, exemplary, and of the highest standard.

So, ten-dollar words can actually be very effective, but their overuse can cause problems. As with many things, there are pros and cons associated with the use of these words.

The Downside of Using Too Many Ten-Dollar Words

You can lose the message. If your client has outstanding skills and experience, but the resume is stuffed with endless strings of convoluted ten-dollar words, is the client’s career story going to be understood? In other words, don’t ‘obfuscate’ (a true ten-dollar word!) the value your client delivers.

You can lose the audience (the readers of the resume) if the language is complex and not in keeping with the job being sought. A client seeking a job as a campaign assistant to a political candidate will be unlikely to receive interviews if their resume reads as if they’re seeking the role of Prime Minister.

Even if you don’t lose the audience, you can distance them by creating a tone that is too formal and impersonal, and not at all reflective of your client’s true personality. A resume perceived as pompous may sabotage your client’s chances for getting that all-important first interview.

The Upside of Using Ten-Dollar Words

Used strategically, ten-dollar words may be entirely appropriate – in fact, they may be absolutely necessary. They can add class, style, and professionalism to job search documents and would be right at home on resumes for CEOs and senior executives.

Ten-dollar words are the norm in certain fields of work – law, for example – so should certainly be included on documents as they will be expected, and fully understood, by the targeted audience.

Some ten-dollar words are more efficient than their one-dollar equivalents. For example, can you think of a one-word equivalent for “intervention”? Off the top of my head, I can’t come up with one.

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I learned a lot from my little research project, and I realized that I am sometimes guilty of excessive ten-dollar word use. I strive to write clearly, so will be judging myself going forward, and asking, “Is there a one-dollar – or even .50 cent – equivalent of that magniloquent (wow!) word I just used?”

To close, here is a fun exchange from a scene in the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It has stuck with me (primarily because of Geoffrey Rush’s perfect deadpan delivery), and it seems to suit this topic:

Elizabeth:  Captain Barbossa, I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal.

Barbossa:  There are a lot of long words in there, Miss. We’re naught but humble pirates. What is it that you want?

Elizabeth:  I want you to leave and never come back.

Barbossa: I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means “no”.

I would like to hear from you. What ten dollar words do you often see in resumes? What do you think of those words?

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