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What is jargon?
As this is an article about using jargon, and how to use it, I’d better explain what it is.
Jargon is the ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.’ (OED)
Every industry has words that mean something to the people in that industry, and may not be known outside that industry. These words are used to simplify communications within that group and are often meaningless when taken out of context. Jargon is relative – the same words can be meaningful to one group of people, but mean something else, or nothing, to another group.
In some industries jargon is useful for accurate and efficient communication. For example, the airline industry uses a phonetic alphabet to make sure words are understood correctly when it’s extremely important to get it right – such as in the control tower. And medical jargon is used to be as accurate as possible when a patient’s health or life is being discussed.
Jargon also helps people bond with others in the same industry by showing a shared identity – a signal of belonging to the same professional community.
But some people use it when they are insecure and want status in their profession – this is particularly true in a business setting where the jargon isn’t usually needed for accuracy and efficiency.
An industry’s jargon can change often with technical or social developments, and includes metaphors, figures of speech, acronyms and repurposed terms.
Technical jargon vs business jargon
Not all jargon is created equal. When you think of jargon, most people think of the business jargon that people cringe at if it's overused. But there is also useful jargon – technical jargon.
Technical jargon is used by those in technical industries, such as engineering, IT, the airline industry, or the medical professions. Professionals working in these industries should know what the words are, as they have been trained in them. The words are helpful in communicating complex ideas or concepts in fewer words.
Technical jargon may also be used by groups of people that are experts in non-professional fields, such as hobbies. For example, if you listen to detectorists speaking, you might hear words like ‘air test’, ‘clipping’ and ‘coke’. You need to learn the meanings of these words to be able to communicate accurately with another detectorist.
Some examples of technical jargon are:
Business (or corporate) jargon is different. Business jargon are clear, common words replaced with other words that don’t always have a clear meaning, for example ‘leverage’, ‘paradigm shift’, ‘drill down,’ ‘think outside the box’ and ‘blue-sky thinking’.
When these new terms come about, everyone needs to learn them, as they don’t mean what you think they mean. This can actually make it take longer to communicate, or mean that some people don’t understand what is being said. Often, the more business jargon that’s used, the more people are turned off and it has the opposite effect.
Some examples of business jargon are:
Can you use jargon when you write in plain language?
Plain language is all about the reader and their needs.
But that doesn’t mean it is always about using the simplest words all the time. If all the readers can easily and quickly understand the content, then it’s plain language, regardless of how technical it is.
So how do you know if you can use a particular word?
There are two questions to ask:
1. Do your readers know it the term?
The first thing to consider is whether your target audience will know the term.
If you are writing to an audience of experts in the field, and you want to use a technical jargon term, the chance that they will know and expect the technical term is high.
For example, if you are writing specifically for doctors, they are going to understand and expect to read ‘cyanotic’ rather than ‘when a patient's skin and mucous membranes are bluish in colour from not enough supply of oxygen in the blood.’ Using the technical term will help the doctors understand the meaning much quicker than the explanation that uses the simpler words.
If you are confident that all your readers will understand the jargon term, then you are likely to be able to use it.
In fact, a study has shown that if a simpler word is used or an expected jargon term is explained, readers may think that the content is not meant for them and not take it seriously.
How do you know if readers will know the term?
If you are not sure if all your readers would know the word, do can do some user research.
User research can be the following:
2. Do you need to use the term?
Often not all your readers will know the word, so you need to decide whether you need to use the term. Consider the following:
As business jargon is not usually needed for technical or efficient communication, these questions will likely 'weed out' any business (corporate) jargon.
Do the readers need to learn this term, if they don’t already know it?
If, for example, you are writing an article to teach a particular concept, it may be important for the readers to learn the term. You may wish to include the term and then explain it so it becomes familiar to them. But if you are writing to get information to the readers as clearly and efficiently as possible, such as government communications to the public, it may not be useful to introduce a new term. In this case, it's better to use terms that the reader already knows.
Does this specific term have more meaning to this audience than the plain-language alternative?
If you are writing content to an expert audience, then they will expect the jargon term, and would be surprised if it wasn’t used. They might think that the article isn’t aimed at them, or that the subject isn’t what they were thinking of.
How much does the term contribute to the message of this content?
If the reader doesn’t need to learn term, and it’s clearer to them without it, then it's better now to use it.
For example, if you are writing medical information for the general public – as we’ve seen a lot in the past few years – it is clearer to write about ‘Covid-19’ than ‘SARS-CoV-2’. But if you are writing specific information for doctors or medical scientists, they may need to distinguish SARS-CoV-2 from SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV, so it is important that the reader has the specific term.
How to use the technical term when some readers won’t know it
If you have decided to use the jargon term, but not all your readers know it, then use both the jargon word and the plain language alternative, or explain it in the context of the text in plain language.
Here are a few ways to use the jargon word if it’s important to use it:
1. Place it next to the plain language alternative.
If most of your readers don’t know the term, put the plain language term first:
If most of your audience do know technical term, but some don’t, put the technical term first:
2. Explain the term within the content
Depending on the style of the content, you can explain the term within the text.
The global pandemic was caused by an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as Covid-19.
3. Include a glossary or a call-out box (separate box)
Another option is to include a glossary or a call-out box (a box set off from the text with a short paragraph). You can make words that are included in the glossary bold in the text to alert the reader that the definition is included if they need it.
However, as a glossary is usually situated at the beginning or end of a document, which means that the reader will need to flip back and forth. This is not as accessible, and some readers might not bother, therefore not getting the complete meaning.
Acronyms are another form of jargon. It’s impossible to understand the meaning without having seen it before and understood the meaning. In fact, often if you google a particular acronym, you will find several options for its meaning. Therefore, it is even more important to consider whether you use it, and to explain it.
Always define the acronym at first use, and again at the beginning of each major section in case the reader doesn’t read the content from start to finish.
Cost per unit (CPU)
Customer relationship management (CRM)
Plain language is not just about using the simplest form of a word, but about making the reader understand the content as quickly and easily as possible.
Sometimes jargon is the best option. Whether you use jargon, and how you use it, depends on whether your readers will already know the term, and how important it is to use it in that context.
If you are writing content in plain language and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of business and government content and non-fiction books.
I can discuss with you where your writing is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me. I would love to hear from you.
Hi, I'm Marja!
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