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In Defense of Jargon

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Jargon takes a lot of flak from some writers and editors. Opponents claim it has no place in good writing, however they define good. It’s meaningless, opaque, and inauthentic, they say. It sounds silly. It’s meant to keep people out.

Subjective claims aside, jargon can be misused.

As an editor, I support clear, concise language. Plain language is crucial in many writings, such as directions for how to vote in an election and the details of a life-threatening illness a patient may have.

Yet we see jargon everywhere. It’s in government documents, business reports, and academic articles. It pops up in advertising and news stories. We read it in magazines and on websites and in social media posts.

What’s the deal with that?

Which Jargon?

Jargon actually has several meanings. Most meanings are, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, contemptuous. From Dictionary.com:

  • “unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish”
  • “any talk or writing that one does not understand”
  • “language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning”

Generally, this is what people complain about. Plainlanguage.gov advises avoiding jargon, defining it as “unnecessarily complicated language used to impress, rather than to inform, your audience.”

But jargon is also “the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.”

That’s what jargon proponents are thinking of: a professional language. It’s how people in the same profession talk to each other. It’s how they share ideas without having to explain the underpinnings all the time.

In text, professional jargon often represents complex concepts the reader needs to know in order understand the text’s meaning. It eases communication. It’s a shortcut, like a pronoun. To explain such terms in the course of making a bigger point would overwhelm both the writer and the reader.

Take, for example, the opening lines of “Assessing Heterogeneous Effects and Their Determinants via Estimation of Potential Outcomes,” an article that appeared in the European Journal of Epidemiology:

When analyzing effect heterogeneity, the researcher commonly opts for stratification or a regression model with interactions. While these methods provide valuable insights, their usefulness can be somewhat limited, since they typically fail to take into account heterogeneity with respect to many dimensions simultaneously, or give rise to models with complex appearances. Based on the potential outcomes framework and through imputation of missing potential outcomes, our study proposes a method for analyzing heterogeneous effects by focusing on treatment effects rather than outcomes.

Heterogeneity? Stratification and regression models? Huh? The title alone should be a clue that this is a highly technical piece of writing meant for a very specific audience. If you’re unsure of what those first few sentences say, the rest of the article is going to be a mystery.

But to the target audience, epidemiology researchers well versed in statistics, this snippet makes sense. It sets up quickly what will be a long discussion on a shifting focus from average effects to heterogeneous ones.

It’s How You Use It

“Yes, but I’m not a scientist,” I can hear you saying. “I don’t expect to be able to understand text like this!”

And that’s the real trouble: our expectations. Not the terms themselves but how they’re used and what readers expect. The writer and editor need to know who the readers are and choose jargon as carefully as every other word in a text.

Because it’s insider’s language, too much jargon can make comprehension difficult. The writer, working with their editor, can determine which terms will be most effective, explaining them on first use or pointing to a definition, if necessary. Terms that are not as critical can be exchanged for something more accessible to everyone.

Repeating a jargon term too much can also make comprehension difficult. Useful repetition emphasizes an idea or helps the reader learn it. Including a gloss (that’s lexicographical jargon for “a short explanation, usually done as a side note”) on first use serves the readers.

Needless repetition, however, draws attention to itself and contributes to a droning rhythm. If the term is unknown to the reader, it will also contribute to a sense of gibberish or opacity. Strive for the balance between using a term enough to be useful but not so much that it drones or becomes meaningless.

Yet some jargon is so useful that it becomes accepted in mainstream usage. If you tell your editor you need your manuscript back, stat, your editor knows you need it immediately thanks to medical jargon. If the edit is a slam dunk, you know it was easy because of sports jargon. And that flak jargon takes? Military jargon.

Jargon needs to be used in full consideration of audience. If it doesn’t help the text, as with any other word, it needs to go. Eliminating all jargon, however, can hamper communication and make the writer seem less of an expert.

Jargon has a purpose. Use it wisely.

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