Jargon – don’t you just love it?
If you work in a specialised field, you probably do. That’s because jargon is the language experts use when they need to communicate precisely, between themselves.
Indeed, that’s the first definition of jargon in my dictionary: “Words or expressions used by a particular group or profession (medical jargon).” Here are the second and third definitions: “debased or pretentious language” and “nonsense, gibberish”.
Unfortunately, useful jargon can become pretentious language, nonsense or gibberish, without you, the writer even noticing. But your readers do. At best, they have to work really hard to understand what you’re saying; at worst, they miss vital information (and possibly think you’re a bit of a prat) because they can’t understand a word.
How does that happen? It happens because you don’t put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Here’s a classic example, from a medical specialist’s website:
“These tumours can grow into the canvas like coverings around the pituitary fossa (dura) and into the cavernous sinus making total removal impossible. Surgery is required when visual disturbance is noted and at times when found incidentally to preserve hormone production.”
This specialist is trying to provide information for his patients, who are probably pretty anxious because they’ve just found out they have a pituitary tumour. But he fails, because he hasn’t used words his patients understand.
To many, this is gibberish, not a helpful explanation. He may need more, but simpler, words to explain.
He could write something like this: “Sometimes these tumours grow into the membrane around your pituitary fossa (a dent in your skull that your pituitary gland rests in), and into a gap called the cavernous sinus. If this happens, we can’t totally remove the tumour. But you may need surgery to stop it affecting your sight or interfering with your hormones.”
As well as explaining the medical terms, this uses active and personal language, which is much easier to read.
Pretentious language – trying to sound authoritative – is almost always impersonal and passive. And so you get sentences such as this, in a press release I saw recently: “A woman’s demand for DHA increases during pregnancy so supplementation can help prevent the depletion of the mother’s store and support the developing baby’s essential fatty acid needs.”
Try: “Women need more DHA during pregnancy and by taking supplements you can help to ensure both you and your baby get enough.”
Both these authors fail to communicate because they haven’t put themselves in their readers’ shoes. But sometimes people deliberately use jargon – big, impressive-sounding words – because they think it makes them sound clever.
I refer those people to my colleague Bill Bennett: “Jargon doesn’t make you look smarter. It tells your readers you’re a pompous wind-bag.”
Successful writing is easily understood writing. It is not writing that makes your subject seem like rocket science – even when it is brain surgery.