Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jargon and good writing don’t mix

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When an application form asks if I am fluent in any foreign languages, I am tempted to list “jargon.”

After spending years in an office setting, I can be obtuse with the best of the business crowd. I can ask for buy-in, put projects on the backburner, leave meetings with action items and worry about having enough bandwidth to get the job done.

Eh, what? If such terminology leaves you cross-eyed, you’re not alone. Jargon is the antithesis of clear, understandable language, and it often flips usage on its head, turning nouns into verbs (e.g., ballpark) or vice versa.

The Canadian Oxford English Dictionary has two useful definitions of jargon, which, in combination, explain it well: Words or expressions used by a particular group or profession; and language marked by affected or convoluted syntax, vocabulary and meaning.

“Jargon masks real meaning,” Jennifer Chapman, a management professor at the University of California Berkeley, told Forbes magazine in a 2012 interview. “People use it as a substitute for thinking clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”

Yet, it surrounds us in the workplace, perhaps because it’s easy and convenient. Individual professions and industries each create their own vocabularies. Jargon can even become a symbol of membership or status; if you talk like a physician, then you will be recognized as a physician.

Stemming the incoming assault of confusing workplace shorthand is no easy task. It’s time for writers and editors to take to the battlements, guarding against the onslaught and helping to strike a blow for straightforward language.

As you delve into any writing or editing project, prepare to think critically about the language. Is it clear or will it require a dictionary to decipher it? Is it language that a Grade 7 student would understand? Does it contain phrases that you only hear in the workplace? If the answer is “Yes” to the second question and “No” to the next, you are on solid ground. If not, it’s time to paraphrase.

Writers and editors are the guardians of clear, understandable communication, and it’s not a job for the faint of heart. Negotiating changes to the CEO’s monthly newsletter column may be a political nightmare, but it’s a sacred trust. What is the point of expounding on a topic if the audience has no idea of your meaning? You may not get thanks, but you’ll get grateful readers.

So, as you sit down to write your own stories or edit someone else’s, make sure to set your jargon meter and listen when it starts ringing. It’s a sure sign that revision is necessary.

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Test your own understanding of jargon:

Match the jargon phrase with its meaning.  If you score 10 out of 10, you’re due for a vacation. If your score is three or lower, you love language. Anywhere in-between: think before you speak! (No peeking at the answers!)

  1. Binary answer                                                   a.  To fire
  2. Granular                                                              b.  A useless project that will require lots of time
  3. Peel the onion                                                  c.  A person of influence and power
  4. Heavy lifting                                                       d.  More detailed
  5. Major player                                                      e.  A subordinate
  6. Magic bullet                                                       f.  A yes or no answer
  7. Time pig                                                               g.  A change or difference
  8. Report                                                                  h. The perfect solution to a problem
  9. Dehire                                                                  i.  The hard work
  10. Delta                                                                     j. To get to the heart of an issue

Answers: 1f; 2d; 3j; 4i; 5c; 6h; 7b; 8e; 9a; 10gSource: http://www.theofficelife.com/business-jargon-dictionary

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Tools of the Trade

Dinosaur reading dictionary

When I sit down at the computer to write, I like to know that the tools of my trade are handy.

Just as a carpenter heads off to a job with a toolbox containing a hammer, nails, a screwdriver, wrenches and other implements that will help accomplish the job, a writer needs various instruments to create the best possible product. The top three tools in a writer’s arsenal are: 

  • a dictionary;
  • a thesaurus;
  • a grammar guide; and
  • a spell-checker.

 Luckily, in our computerized world, word-processing programs generally come with built-in tools that can go along with me anywhere I take my laptop. What’s not to like about an online dictionary and thesaurus? As I write, I find a dictionary useful when I’m unclear about the nuances of a word or to ensure that the word I’ve chosen to use actually means what I assume it to mean. 

I keep a copy of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary close at hand when I’m reading, too. It has Canadian words that aren’t found in the average English language dictionary, such as double double (coffee with double cream and double sugar) and two-four (a case of 24 cans or bottles of beer.)

It’s not as much fun to curl up on the couch with a computer, but there are solid online dictionaries, too, such as Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/) or the splendid Cambridge Free English Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org), which allows the reader to choose between British and American English.

 Now, a thesaurus – there’s a tome that a writer can get behind. It’s almost a law of physics that as I compose at the keyboard, synonyms will go into hiding, and my brain will be incapable of finding them. Once upon a time, Roget’s was the definitive thesaurus, but it had a fatal flaw: it didn’t list words alphabetically. Today, there are myriad others whose editors have realized that even though writers may forget synonyms, they certainly know the alphabet. Choose one of those for ease of use. There’s a Gage Canadian Thesaurus on my bookshelf. For online use, the aforementioned dictionaries also offer thesaurus options for one-stop shopping. Make sure to bookmark one of the sites for ease of use. 

Good writers use good grammar, but we’re not perfect. Sometimes, we need to decide whether to use who or whom, or we can’t remember whether to employ “Mary and I” or “Mary and me.” (Hint: It depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence or the object of a preposition.) 

The grammar book of choice back in the Stone Age of my youth was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – they had an edition suitable for students in each grade. I confess: I keep one on my bookshelf, but I am just as likely to use an online service, such as Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). There is also Grammarly, (http://www.grammarly.com/) a handy site that will check the grammar in an entire document.

Whoever invented the online spell-checker was a genius! It’s a given that a writer will make errors in typing when writing online, and it’s just as certain that there are words whose spellings haunt writers each time they use one of them. For ages, I was convinced that persevere was perservere – don’t ask me why! 

Thank heavens for the spell-checker. It catches most my typos before it’s too late. However, I do suggest reading through the document again, to ensure you haven’t accidentally accepted any incorrect changes – the human eye is an excellent backup system. 

Don’t leave perfection to chance. Next time you sit down at your computer, whether to compose an email, a short story or an annual report, make sure your work has that professional polish. Bolster your book collection or your online favourites list with the writer’s “sacred trinity”: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a grammar guide. And before you hit the “send” button, run your maserpiece through the spell-checker. Believe me, you won’t be sorry.

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In Search of Perfection

A colleague asked me recently to serve as a guest on her business blog, offering some insights about writing. Ever since she made her request, a variety of thoughts on my beloved profession have been flitting through my head. One of the effervescent ideas I managed to trap before it floated away related to the necessity of embracing fallibility.

We writers, like our fellow human beings, are imperfect, and our writing is never as perfect as we’d like it to be. We fuss and polish, but eventually, a deadline looms, and we must submit our work. Inevitably, we’ll look back a day or a week later and think, “I should have added this,” or “I should have stated that differently.” It’s unlikely the casual reader will ever be as critical of our work as we are – and that’s a good thing.

Good writing takes effort, and stories or articles generally don’t spring fully grown from a scribe’s head. Think back to a story or a book that captured your fancy. Don’t imagine that it began in the shape you now see on the page. Even the best writers put their ideas down on the page and then tinker with the result.

This tinkering may be simple copy editing, or fixing mistakes in spelling and grammar, or it may be more substantive in nature: rewriting full paragraphs or placing them in a different order. We patch up any tears in our tales before they make their way to the red pencil-wielding editor, or the one who gleefully boots up the Track Changes function on the computer.

If we’re skilled and diligent, our published work will look remarkably similar to the pieces we submitted, and we’ll be asked back to write others. Nonetheless, it won’t remain untouched. Editors are hired to improve writing, looking closely for flaws and requesting changes. It’s all part of the process of seeking perfection.

And even though we know we’ll never escape unscathed, our writing altered here and there, we keep trying. We may never achieve perfection, but without that goal, we’d be doomed to mediocrity.

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