Monday, April 2, 2012

Grammar ABCs: J is for Jargon

Jargon is the special language of each profession, sport or hobby. We can all spout words when talking about our current passion that make another person frown and say, “Huh?”

When I was a 9-1-1 dispatcher years ago, I learned a completely new language that revolved around numbers. But even that wasn’t necessarily translatable by other law enforcement agencies. For example, in our community the code “211” meant there are no wants or warrants on an individual or license plate. We once received a call from a California agency, wondering how a small town in Montana could have so many armed robberies. Their code “211” meant robbery in progress.

Jargon is sometimes merely doublespeak, and it is also often responsible for wordy, heavy-handed sentences. When it comes from government or business, we call it “bureaucratese.” It’s almost as if the writer has deliberately ignored every opportunity for clear, concise writing.

Here’s an example: “The necessity for individuals to become separate entities in their own right may impel children to engage in open rebelliousness again parental authority or against sibling influence, with resultant confusion of those being rebelled against.”


Rewrite: “Children’s natural desire to become themselves may make them rebel against bewildered parents or siblings.”

Ah, now I get it!

Jargon can turn into buzzwords that everybody adopts until they become cliches. These are terms that have spread beyond their original field, and people outside the occupation often use the words imprecisely or pretentiously, for example: downsize, cutting edge, holistic, benchmarking, paradigm, synergy, tipping point, off-shoring, next generation. Here's an amusing article about new terms being introduced in marketing.

When we are writing our first drafts, we may find ourselves resorting to jargon if we feel we want to sound more important or knowledgeable, especially when we are unsure of the subject or when our thoughts are tangled. But, on the rewrite, make sure to eliminate jargon and strive for clarity.

Cut all those extraneous words.
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Interesting post. I suppose jargon does get completed between different peoples to the point of miscommunication. I will have to watch for instances of this in my own writing.

  2. Heidi this is great! I am a huge fan of concision in general.

    I loved your wordy example. My father wrote like this at times. He once proudly showed me a published letter to the editor he wrote and I had no clue what it was about. I just said, "Nice, Dad."

    It's especially hard for someone with a lifelong career in a field like engineering or certain technical fields to shake free from this, don't you think? It can come in handy for a character's dialogue, though.

  3. Excellent points, Heidi! And great example!

    Coincidentally, I just posted an article called "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing" on my blog two days ago, at

  4. I've enjoyed reading this blog and gave it a Bean' Pat on my blog for today. Thanks for sharing the writing advice.

  5. It was writing like that that got me through many an essay test.

  6. Good writers use universal language that anyone can understand. Kill those darlings! Even if you think they make you sound impressive. So often, I think this coded language people use is just to make themselves feel like part of an "in" crowd. Very sophomoric, isn't it? On the other hand, a YA writer would probably want to add some of that to lend authenticity to a teen voice. On the other hand, too much of it, and you can date the story. But then you might WANT to date the story! For example, you might say "mea culpa" in a historical novel, but you wouldn't say "my bad". An extreme example, but you get my point.

  7. I've always been very aware of jargon - coming from a theatrical background I learned I had to 'speak civilian' (which is itself a theatrical jargon phrase) when talking about the theatre to my non-theatre friends and family. Then there's the essential jargon which must be used in grant applications, etc.

    It was a hard lesson to learn to 'speak civilian' when I was writing playing instructions for my two mystery games which are play scripts. I rewrote those instructions many, many times.

  8. Sometimes we assume that everyone knows and understands the words and phrases we use. Thanks for reminding us all that what we believe is not always correct.

  9. Jargon is fine as long as it's restricted to the right audience. All professions have their jargon, which I expect is their shorthand. But when those professionals want to reach a wider audience they'd better write and speak differently.

  10. Good points, Heidi. Having the example like that is so helpful. Shows exactly what you are talking about.

    I agree with Kathryn about how overwriting a certain character's dialogue and loading it with jargon could be a good way to show characterization. I have done that once or twice with some minor characters in my books, especially scientific type characters. But I do think doing that sparingly would be best.

  11. Well, and it depends on the goal of the book. It might have a very narrow audience. But the same rules apply to your writing as what Bob mentioned in his comment about professions. If you want to reach a wider audience, you better write to reach them, in words anyone can understand. No silos... if you know what I mean. ;)

  12. Great comments, everyone! LOL, Christopher, sometimes jargon does come in handy! And, using a little "sparingly" in dialogue is a good way to identify a character.

    Yes, kill your darlings!


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