Good Jargon vs. Bad Jargon

We all talk about jargon, but what do we mean by jargon?

Let’s begin with the Encarta World English Dictionary definition:

Jargon n: 1. Language that is used by a particular group, profession, or culture, especially when the words and phrases are not understood or used by other people. 2. Pretentious or meaningless language (disapproving).

It’s jargon if, according to the first dictionary definition, it’s “the language used by a particular group, profession, culture, especially when the words and phrases are not understood or used by other people.” This is the “good jargon” – the insider language that cuts to the chase, and provides exact, specific meaning to other insiders so they understand clearly exactly what you’re talking about. The key here is that your readers are insiders. They are people who speak the language of this specific discipline, and understand the terms you are using in the same way you are using them.

The second dictionary definition (“Pretentious or meaningless language [disapproving]”) is how most of us think of, and have come to use the term.  This is the “bad jargon,” and is characterized by (a) taking twice as many words as you need to say it clearly to your specific reader (again, the reader, and the “language” he or she understands, is the key); (b) perhaps – although not usually to anyone except the writer – sounding impressive, but not making sense to your reader (“writing to impress, rather than to express”); and  (c) using certain words or phrases that have been used and used and used….

So here are four easy ways to fix, or avoid altogether “second definition” jargon issues:

  1. Focus your thoughts and clarify your thinking before you begin to write. Think about the piece you are writing, and who will be reading it. What is their level of technical understanding in this discipline – what “language” do they speak? What do you want this piece to achieve? What tone is appropriate given your purpose, and this reader? And finally, what are the points you want to make?
  1. Begin with a who-what-when-where-why-how first paragraph so your reader knows immediately, at a glance, what the entire piece is about, and what he or she needs to do with it. Use language your reader is comfortable with. Remember that an email should be no more than a screen to a screen-and-a-half. If your message will be longer than that, use an attachment to a “cover letter” email.
  1. Look for appropriate places to use an alternate format in the body of the piece. Use bullet points, numbers, indents, subheads in a longer piece, specialized formats, and other visual devices to clarify your meaning. Remember that unless you are writing to someone on your intranet, with screen settings exactly like yours, formatting may not hold unless it is saved as a PDF, or an attachment.

Alternate formats are perhaps the best way to simplify and clarify your language virtually automatically.

  1. If wordiness is an issue, ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say here? Look for the bare bones, and start from there.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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