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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question asks whether using jargon ever makes sense. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and today I address the topic: does using jargon ever make sense?
I have a question from Maithili Dokuparti, a clinical researcher based in Bangalore, India. Here’s the question, which arrived on my desk via email:
“For writers, how important is it to adopt jargon specific to the domain in which they’re working? I have recently started working for a life sciences technology company. Although I find it relatively easy to understand most of the concepts, some specific terminology — such as “implementation ” and “product lifecycle” — mean very specific things in my industry. Does it make sense for me to incorporate such jargon in my writing and, if so, how do you suggest I do that?”
Thanks for your question, Maithili. Actually, I have two quite different answers for you. Which one you accept depends entirely on who you are writing for.
If your audience is a general one — the public — you really want to avoid using jargon as much as possible. Jargon excludes people and frustrates them.
To help everyone watching this video really understand those feelings of exclusion, here’s an example of some jargon:
When you join us for the Sitz, please assemble at the SD no later than 1:30 pm. Our ASM will meet you and escort you HL. After the first run he will be able to show you the pit, the flies and tormentors in the wings, the cyc, and try out the cross.
Did you get that?
That burst of jargon comes from the world of opera. My son trained as an opera singer and he gave me this example to use with my clients. Here’s what it really means:
When you come to the first rehearsal with the orchestra meet at the stage door no later than 1:30. Our assistant stage manager will meet you and escort you to the left side of the stage. After the first run-through he’ll show you the pit where the orchestra sits, the props and sets, the black curtain, the backdrop and the special place where singers can walk across the stage without being seen by the audience.
Now that I’ve put that text into plain English, doesn’t seem to make a lot more sense to you? The issue with jargon is that it’s useful for people who already know the jargon, and frustrating for those who don’t know it.
This is why if your writing job is to communicate with outsiders — these might be government officials, stockholders, or simply the general public — you shouldn’t use jargon. It’s only going to confuse and alienate them.
On the other hand, if you’re writing for insiders — people for whom this kind of vocabulary is a type of shorthand — then yes, you should use it because it will only increase your clarity and precision.
I used to work in the newspaper business and we had lots of jargon: lede, kicker, banner, clip art, cold type, colour key, copy desk, dateline, folio. These words all meant very specific things to us and using them saved time. But we never used these words with outsiders because they’d have difficulty understanding them.
One other point, Maithili, you are particularly useful to your company right now because you haven’t yet ABSORBED the meaning of all the jargon. This means that you’ll be in a perfect position to decide whether any communications efforts the company is considering are understandable to outsiders.
If, for internal communications purposes, you want to become more familiar with the jargon your company uses, start by creating a glossary for yourself. See link below for more details. Don’t try to finish the glossary in a couple of days. Give yourself a generous amount of time — say six weeks — and be sure to include all the terms you want to learn and all the important definitions for them.
It’s not likely you’ll ever need to consult this glossary yourself — writing it down will cement the knowledge in your own mind. But it will give you a chance to review it with someone who’s worked at the company longer than you.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the German philosopher and sociologist, Theodor Adorno: “Words of the jargon sound as if they said something higher than what they mean.”
Maithili, jargon is neither all good nor all bad. There are reasons for it and places to use it. Just don’t use it with the general public.