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Is jargon in writing always taboo?

The pros and cons of jargon in writing, and how we can avoid using it if we need to.

If you’re baffled by ‘accountability matrices’, ‘leveraging synergies’, and ‘swim lanes’, and the expression ‘opening the kimono’ just sounds downright creepy - you’re not alone.

Although jargon has a reputation for being pretentious, exclusionary, and confusing, it isn’t inherently bad. When used appropriately it’s actually a very useful form of language.

So, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of jargon use.

As the specialized language of specific groups, professions, or trades (e.g. law and medicine) its use enables people who are working in the same field, or who belong to the same group, to communicate quickly, clearly and efficiently.

Here are some examples of jargon that are meaningful to people in the respective industry or service, but are potentially meaningless to people outside of those groups…

Examples of jargon:

Computing:

  • defrag
  • simple mail transfer protocol

Education:

  • bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • constructivism
  • intrapersonal intelligence
  • locus of control

Law:

  • probate
  • intestate
  • grantor
  • decree

Medicine:

  • dyspnea
  • biopsy

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using specialized words if they’re the right words for the job. And as always, the best language to use in your writing depends on context and audience. If you’re writing for someone who shares your specialized knowledge, then the specific jargon of your trade, niche, or industry is entirely appropriate, and is the best choice of words to help you convey meaning and information effectively.

In addition, if you use the jargon of your niche or industry in your writing it can enhance your authority and credibility within that group because it shows you are familiar with its specialized language, and you can use and understand it.

However, there’s no doubt the use of jargon can be a problem in some circumstances.

Why jargon can be a big problem

If we use the special words and phrases of our profession or group outside of those contexts, that’s when it very often becomes meaningless talk, or jargon in its negative sense. Using jargon in this way may be down to simple thoughtlessness or lack of awareness, or something more deliberate.

Problems arise when people use jargonistic language for excluding others from a group, by deliberately using language they know will not be understood. Or when they’re trying to impress their audience, or they have an inflated sense of their own importance.

Most professions or groups have their own special words and phrases, but using them where it isn’t necessary or appropriate results in poor communication. It obscures and over-complicates meaning, which is irritating and alienating, with potentially damaging consequences.

If, for example, a doctor uses medical jargon with a patient, or a lawyer uses legal jargon with a client, very often the patient or client won’t understand the language used, with the result they won’t fully understand issues that can have enormous significance for them.

So, when we know we need to avoid using jargon in our writing, how can we do that?

How to avoid jargon in your writing

If you’re writing for a general audience, think carefully about the vocabulary you’re using and always keep your audience in the front of your mind.

If you’re at all unsure your readers will understand any expressions, terminology, or acronyms, etc., then either use a plain English alternative if your jargon word isn't essential to your text, or give your readers a clear definition, or describe something in more familiar terms, so that:

a) they don’t have to stop reading in order to look it up in a dictionary, and

b) if/when they next encounter the expression in your text they will know exactly what it means.

And if a word you're using isn't in the dictionary, change it! Even if it's a buzzword you’ve used and heard often, if it’s not in the dictionary it’s very likely to be jargon that won’t be understood by everyone.

Just because something is familiar to you, be careful not to assume it is for everyone – especially if you have an international audience, or readers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Online proofreading software will quickly and easily help you identify any jargon words or phrases in your writing that need editing.

Don’t feel you have to use difficult words to make your writing better or more impressive. Plain and simple vocabulary is a good tool, and writing simply and with clarity is a great skill to master.

Good writing can include jargon. But using jargon can certainly also result in bad writing. It just depends how it’s used – whether that’s as a useful tool to efficiently communicate meaning in an appropriate context, or carelessly without careful consideration of a text’s audience, or as a tool to deliberately isolate and confuse.

You want your writing to clearly communicate ideas, to inform and persuade, and entertain. So pay careful attention to your choice of vocabulary, keep your audience foremost, and use proofreading software to help you pick out any jargon words or phrases that might hinder understanding.