Jargon vs Specialized Technical Language

Jargon is another type of language you must be aware of using. But first, you must distinguish between jargon and specialized technical language, a distinction found not in particular words, but in the contexts in which these words are used. A number of terms and acronyms that are useful specialized language for an expert in a field are incomprehensible, irritating jargon for a non-expert reader. The following diagram illustrates the pattern for jargon.


Used in an appropriate context, technical language helps you communicate precisely with other specialists who possess a level of expertise similar to your own. Thus, when Stephen Hawking uses the acronym GUT in an article written for physicists, he employs specialized language familiar to his readers. But if he failed to define the same term in a magazine article for the general public, he would be using jargon that might leave some readers wondering about the relationship between the digestive tract and the origins of the universe. (In case you are wondering, GUT stands for Grand Unified Theory, which is a theory that unifies three of the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear, and the strong nuclear force. The fourth force, gravity, is theoretically unified with the other forces in Superforce Theory.)

In other words, useful technical terms used reflexively (i.e., without thought) for the wrong readers become jargon. If you have any doubts about your reader’s level of expertise, you should err on the side of caution, minimizing your use of technical language. If specialized terms are unavoidable, define them in the text, in a footnote, or in a glossary.

Example 1

Most often, we use jargon simply because we fail to consider how well our readers know the subject we are writing about. Some writers, however, use jargon purposefully to make a simple idea seem more complex or to make a self-evident statement sound more impressive. This use of jargon is often described as gobbledygook. Reflect on its effect as you read the following passage:

In effect, it was hypothesized that certain physical data categories including housing types and densities, land use characteristics, and ecological location, constitute a scaleable content area. This could be called a continuum of residential desirabilities. Likewise, it was hypothesized that several social strata categories, describing the same census tracts, and referring generally to the social stratification system of the city, would also be scaleable. This scale could be called a continuum of socioeconomic status. It was also hypothesized that there would be a high positive correlation between the scale type of each continuum. (Excerpted from N. Green, "Scale Analysis of Urban Structures: A Study of Birmingham Alabama," American Sociological Review, 21:1, 1956, 9.)

The author of this passage may have unconsciously used the specialized language of his or her field, but what we read is jargon. From our non-specialist perspective, the language seems meant to impress readers rather than to communicate. A jargon-free translation reads:

Wealthy people live in nice homes in desirable neighbourhoods while poor people live in substandard housing in run-down neighbourhoods.

Because writers of technical documents are most concerned with communicating information, they rarely exhibit this extreme use of jargon. We do, however, find gobbledygook in assignments when students put impressing teachers above communicating content. (Teachers are rarely impressed.) The risk for these writers is developing habits that carry forward into workplace writing.

Example 2

Jargon can also be used as a form of deception. This potentially sinister use of jargon is known as doublespeak. We invented the following passage using examples we heard on news channels during the 1st Persian Gulf War. Note how the passive voice contributes to the overall effect:

To service the target, the theatre was entered and a package of ordnance was delivered. Subsequently, a BDA was undertaken in order to assess the softening of enemy assets. It was observed that the ordnance was incontinent thereby leading to some collateral damage.

Translated into jargon-free language, the passage reads:

We dropped bombs on the enemy and then later looked to see if we killed them, but we missed and blew up civilians instead.

While doublespeak is not a common concern in technical writing, you can expect to encounter it in other situations. In engineering contexts, inappropriate use of technical language is the form of jargon that is all too common.

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