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A Place for Jargon—and Jargon in its Place

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 by Jane

“We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon,” writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well, his guide to nonfiction writing—and mandated reading for English and journalism students for decades.

Zinsser advocates simplicity in writing. But with “meaningless jargon,” he implies perhaps that not all jargon is meaningless. Zinsser leaves room for the idea that there are two types of jargon: Unnecessary jargon that alienates, confuses and annoys an audience, and jargon that can’t be avoided, as it would make the writing more complicated.

In marketing, there is a third type of jargon—using more and bigger words to make something sound more appealing, but in a clear, enticing way. (“Certified pre-owned vehicle” sounds much better than “used car,” no?) However, even in marketing, jargon can easily turn off an audience. And if it is used as a strategy to deceive them, marketers risk losing their trust.

Not all collateral is overt marketing. White papers and case studies have a subtle marketing purpose, but are used primarily to inform and educate. It is in this writing that businesses need to be particularly aware of jargon’s presence.

In writing for industries such as high-tech and healthcare, jargon is rampant—but when intended for an “in-group” audience, can be acceptable. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), in its “Appropriate Language: Overview,” defines “in-group jargon” as “specialized language used by groups of like-minded individuals” that should be used only when writing for that group. And when jargon does cross over into writing for a general audience, it should be explained.

Jargon can be difficult for writers to avoid, especially when it is the best way to summarize something complicated. “Data integration,” for instance, is easier to write (and read) than “a method of combining information from various sources into one place so people can view it and analyze it more efficiently.” While most readers likely can decipher the term without a longwinded explanation, on first reference, it might be worth the extra word count to write: “Data integration, a method of combining information from various sources into one place, makes data analysis more efficient.”

When applied in the wrong setting jargon can be, well, jarring. My brother, a paramedic, tends to insert medical terms into non-work conversations. Recently, when offered a glass of wine, he replied with, “No, thank you. Wine is a vasodilator.” He could’ve said, simply, “No, thank you. I don’t like the way wine affects my heart rate.”  (Or better yet, “No, thank you.”) The point: If there is a more straightforward way to communicate, take it.

The government is notorious for using jargon instead of plain language. But there is a movement to reduce jargon in all government communications. PlainLanguage.gov, managed by the Plain Language Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees dedicated to “Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public,” defines jargon as “unnecessarily complicated and convoluted language used to impress, rather than to inform your reader.” PLAIN emphasizes that while jargon, such as technical terms, has its place, clear language is paramount.

The lesson here for businesses: Even the government knows jargon can undermine the clarity of communications. And while jargon may have a meaningful role in your collateral at times, it should never be your go-to vocabulary. Your Content Bureau editors and writers know the power of plain language. We channel William Zinsser when making your documents strong and clear: “Can any thought be expressed with more economy? … Simplify, simplify.”

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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