Jargon in Writing

From the newsroom

Sangeeta Cavale

Too much jargon can make your writing unintelligible.

To professionals, hobbyists, experts, specialists and the like, these words may be everyday parlance.

But to you, me and those not in the know, the very same words could be a whole different language altogether. So, what do hyperlipidemia, ad colligenda bona, riparian, catbird seat and esquisse-esquisse mean? These tongue-twisters are examples of medical, legal, scientific, sports and architectural jargon respectively.

When you write online or blog, you don’t want your reader to end up confused or waste his/her time looking for the meaning of jargon-heavy words in your article, do you? Unless you are bringing out an academic paper, writing for a specific audience which understands jargon from that particular field or blogging for a very niche segment of readers it is best to keep jargon at bay. There is no rule of thumb as such for jargon, but like in all forms of writing for the net, simple is the way to go!

How many times have you read or heard technical, medical, legal or scientific words and been flummoxed by all the jargon that is used? Have you had to check the dictionary or Google the term?

Do you have friends who are professionals and who keep spouting terms only they understand? As writers and bloggers, we know that the best way to connect with readers is to make things straightforward and understandable. While using jargon may prove how well-informed or highly intelligent a writer is, it may serve to alienate a reader who may misinterpret a whole sentence because he/she had no idea what audi alteram partem  (to hear the other side) meant.

However, not all jargon is indecipherable. Some words and terms have even crept into everyday use. There are also times when jargon can be used to make your piece of writing precise and accurate. But, it’s always best to first examine if your writing necessitates use of jargon of any sort.

The Merriam-Webster offers several definitions for jargon.

Confused, unintelligible language.

The technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group

Obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

What was that again?

Jargon is not limited to any profession, topic or field alone. There is medical jargon, technical jargon, internet, business, political jargon, scientific jargon, architectural jargon, writing jargon and much more. It’s not unusual for specific jargon to be used in say medical or aviation journals, legal or robotics blogs. It is meant for those who already understand the terms and are familiar with its use. A general rule – if your blog or web post is for the average reader – is to try to use jargon that is already in mainstream use. For Eg: pro-bono (for the public good). ‘’This site is for pro-bono lawyers and students.’’

Some legal, medical, scientific, technical, military jargon is are pushed into the mainstream by necessity, becoming so widely used that the media/web must at some point acknowledge and use them. . As writers you should ask yourself whether jargon that you want to use can be represented just as easily in everyday language, does your audience know the new term, does the term say something new? Is there any other way of explaining your point?

Using Jargon in Technical Writing

It is sometimes acceptable for technical communications experts to use jargon in their writing. Because jargon can serve as useful shorthand for quick communication, it does serve a purpose; it just needs to be used properly. In general, it’s acceptable to use jargon when creating highly-specialized documentation for a niche audience that would know the terminology being used. Even in these instances, technical writers explain jargon used (through glossaries and/or additional exposition) for those readers who may not be familiar with such terminology.

In some instances, it is best that jargon is not tampered with. In Nature – An International Weekly Journal of Science, writer Trevor Quirk says, “When faced with any jargon — scientific, business-speak, legalese — people tend to presume that every term could be substituted with something more colloquial. At first, it might seem unnecessary for economists to use the French word ‘tranche’ instead of ‘layer’, ‘slice’ or ‘cut’. But common synonyms are problematic because they can be swapped and easily confused for each other.’’

Can you explain it to your mother?

Arizona State University has some guidelines regarding jargon, which make its usage clear.

If the source can’t come up with a good explanation in lay terms, rely on your dictionary and reputable online sources to explain the concept. Can you explain it to your mother, grandmother or Uncle Jimmy?

·    Leave it out if it is not essential to the story.

·    Make the definition of any necessary jargon short, clear and understandable to readers.

·    Explain jargon with examples. The classic example is a measurement of micrometers or nanometers compared to the thickness of human hair. That gives readers a mental image of the scale you want to convey.

·    Read the piece aloud from the position of a reader. It will hit your ear, even if it doesn’t hit your eye.

·    Know your audience. Stories for Insight go to largely an educated audience, but articles should be written for a general audience, too. News releases should be written like news stories. Newspapers write to a sixth-grade reading level.

·    Avoid acronyms, especially those used on campus.

·    Academic degrees and certifications are something to be proud of, but many people have no idea what these initials stand for. If a degree or certification is relevant to the story, refer to it in a way that readers understand: “Biehl, who has a doctorate in physics…”

Examples of Medical Jargon

·    Agonal – Term to signify a major, negative change in a patient’s condition

·    NPO – A patient should not take anything by mouth

Examples of Military Jargon

·    SAM – Surface-to-Air missile

·    PCS – A permanent change of station

Examples of Political Jargon

·    POTUS – President of the United States

·    SCOTUS – Supreme Court of the United States

There is no ‘absolute’ right or wrong when it comes to the use of jargon. Always keep your target audience in mind. When it comes to web writing, remember that today your readers are in a wide age, activity and interest range so try to avoid pretentious and convoluted jargon as much as possible.

Interesting reading…