Section 3.3

Jargon

Various professions have their own specialized vocabulary, called jargon. Lawyers, computer programmers, physicians, and many other professionals regularly use words that are familiar to their colleagues but mysterious to people in other disciplines.

If you are a biochemist writing for other biochemists, it would be natural and appropriate to refer to organelles, bioassays, or even colloidal inorganic semiconductor nanocrystals. However, a specialist who is writing for a lay audience has an obligation to explain any terms that might be unfamiliar to readers. A bond-fund manager will know what mortgage-backed securities are, but if she is writing an article for an audience of inexperienced investors, she should explain the term before using it.

In addition to profession-specific jargon, the business community in general is constantly developing its own vocabulary. Some of these new words are useful and fill a need, but many of them are trendy and vague and contribute little to clarity. Examples of questionable business terminology include:

actionable

best of breed

best practices

core competencies

enterprise-wide

incent/incentivize/disincent

mission-critical

operationalize

optimize

proactive

synergy/synergies/synergize

value-added, value add

Most of the terms included on this list are so widely used that you may be surprised to see them here. (And if you don’t recognize them, that may be a good sign!)

Imagine you are reading a memo on business strategy in which the writer uses these terms prolifically. In the memo you encounter the following sentence: “We need to proactively operationalize our core competencies enterprise-wide to ensure synergies and value adds for all of our clients.” Would you understand what that meant? Would the writer himself understand what that meant? Probably not. Now, this example is perhaps a little exaggerated, but not by much; this type of fluffy writing is all too common in business.

If you regularly use terms such as operationalize or synergize in your own writing, try the following experiment. Write down a definition of the terms, and then ask a colleague to define the same terms. Now compare your definitions.

Chances are good that (1) one or both of you will have had a hard time defining the terms, which suggests their meaning is elusive, and/or (2) your definitions won’t be the same, even if you haven’t had trouble composing them.

Remember: communication depends on consensus about the meanings of words. If people cannot generally agree on a word’s definition, they will not be able to communicate effectively when they use it.

A final type of jargon is the acronym, formed by combining the initial letters of a series of words — for example, ATO for Approved Training Office. Acronyms are popular in business writing because they save space (and perhaps, in some cases, because they sound technical and intimidating). Acronyms are often a convenience to the writer rather than to the reader, though, and when overused, can confuse and frustrate your audience. Writing etiquette requires that you put the reader’s comfort and convenience before any desire you may have to reduce keystrokes.

Of course, if your readers are already reasonably familiar with an acronym you wish to use, or if the acronym is intuitive and easy to learn, then you can do the following:

1. Write out the first reference in full, followed by the acronym in parentheses, as in this example:

The second chapter discusses collateralized loan obligations (CLOs).

2. For subsequent references, use only the acronym.