Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jargon: Just (don't) do it

A page from my illustrated copy of The Elements of Style

If there is one thing that transcends all industries, it's jargon.  You've all heard it. You've maybe even written it. By the way, how jargon-y sounding is the word "jargon" anyway?

Merriam-Webster has several definitions for jargon.
1a : confused unintelligible language 
b : a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect  
c : a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech
2: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group
3: obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

The jargon I'm referring to can often start as definition 2, but really leans more heavily toward definition 3, which often feels just like definition 1. Jargon often annoys us for several reasons: redundancy,too many words (aka wordiness), cloudiness (most often by complicating the sentence structure), and redundancy. Keeping text concise goes a looooong way toward improving your communication and writing skills.

How do you avoid sprinkling jargon into your own work?
  • Edit. And then edit again. Until you can't be a mite more concise.
  • Read it out loud. In a whisper if you must. Each sentence should be coherent on its own.
  • Mix up sentence lengths. Simple sentences are your friend and can help you get the point across. It also keeps things interesting for the reader.
  • Ask yourself "is it necessary?" For example, in my previous bullet, I debated "can help" in the second sentence. Can it or does it? In the end I decided "can" is necessary because it doesn't always help.
  • Learn proper usage. Sometimes we just don't quite know how to say what we want to say, resulting in wordiness. Some of my favorite resources for language use are the Elements of Style (a classic), Chicago Style Q&A, and Common Errors in English Usage (formerly a website, now a book). Your company or school may have its own style or usage guide or prefer one over never hurts to ask!
Just a few of my (many) jargon-y pet peeves:
  • including, but not limited to. "Including" already implies that the list is incomplete, otherwise you'd use "comprising." Redundant.
  • in order to. "To" can do the job on its own.
  • end result. Redundant.
  • due to the fact that. Try "because."
  • Unnecessary passive voice. This almost always contributes to wordiness and cloudiness. Note unnecessary--sometimes passive voice works. But usually not.
And thus ends another wordy post on wordiness. Clearly something I'm still working on myself.

What is your jargon pet peeve? Are there any jargon-y phrase do you actually like?


  1. I'm very guilty of using to much jargon, I became more aware of this as I started blogging. (Therefore writing more often)
    I think it's left over bad-habits from high school and trying to pad my papers to the required length. I do not work in an industry that requires frequent writing so I don't get a lot of practice.

    I do enjoy using jargon/slang in non-professional conversations (mostly with friends). But like cursing sometimes it unfortunately worms it's way into my work-talk. Then I'll accidentally say 'That flowchart is totally whack dude.'

  2. Helpful tips. My boss hates it when I use passive voice but sometimes I do it to take up time in a script. A lot of our stuff needs to fall within a specific time frame and I am mindful of what is flowery, useful, accurate and necessary. It's a hard line to balance when script writing because you are using someone else's voice to convey a specific idea. Usually, we compromise and it only takes a few drafts.

  3. I'm not sure if this fits under jargon, but I have such a hard time with acronyms. There are so many acronyms at my workplace - when I first started, I had to stop the speaker to explain what they were talking about!

  4. Once again, Angeline, hitting the nail on the head for situations I'm dealing with at the moment! I say, are you lurking in my office somewhere, spying on the issues and then adding your solutions to the internet? :) In all seriousness, this is a GREAT reminder. I think sometimes I get caught up in being too polite, and it just makes the message unclear. There's a time and place for niceties, but urgent emails are not it!

  5. These are great tips, Angeline! I also have an outsider proof my work to make sure that I'm not using any "insider" language - it's a great way to catch any mistakes.

  6. "including, but not limited to" is a total lawyer phrase, so unless you're writing a legal brief just leave it (and stuff like it)out! gah!

  7. Superb writing tips! This English major certainly appreciates, although you're preaching to the choir. If only the people who aren't English/grammar fanatics could get this stuff!

  8. Great things to keep in mind while writing.

    I must mention though, since this is a post on writing well, that I believe you mean to say 'implies' instead of 'infers' in this bit:

    "including, but not limited to. "Including" already infers that the list is incomplete, otherwise you'd use "comprising." Redundant."

  9. @ loren - yes, jargon is great for mocking. :) And I am with you--sometimes it just slips and I can't help it!

    @ destrehan's daughter - yup, that's why I always qualify any tips on passive voice to recommend against it, but acknowledge that sometimes it works better than active. Timed stuff is definitely one of those cases where wordiness can help. :)

    @ caroline - acronyms can certainly be jargon! especially if there are a lot of them, even if they are widely known in the industry. In our organization we stay away from acronyms when possible, but at least try to think of clever ones when we have to create them on our own (naming new programs, etc.)

    @ ashley - LOL that is awesome! sounds like our workplaces are very similar. :)

    @ ohsaycanyousay - that's definitely helpful, too!

    @ step - I KNOW! The problem we have sometimes is when legal people want to put legalese in everything..."just in case."

    @ grit and glamour - so true! I have to admit--up until I became a writer myself, English was always my worst subject. Probably due to my weak reading comprehension skills more than my writing, but still, it's always funny to tell people. :)

    @ anonymous - thanks for the catch! (and how embarrassing). I wish I had an editor for my blog posts the way I do at work. :)


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