Jargon and good writing don’t mix


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.


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


1 Comment

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One response to “Jargon and good writing don’t mix

  1. mavic galicia

    elaine– i took the jargon test and scored 6. 😦

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