Avoiding Jargon at All Costs

by Cate Mahoney

Jargon. We all know it when we see it. And by that I mean we wonder what in tarnation the writer is talking about, why they made us see it, and what they want us to do with it. Jargon can be found in every field, but I know about it best in academia. Written or spoken, jargon complicates the whole point of discourse, which is to communicate, to share information.

When I first entered my graduate program and was in class with people in the year above me, some of them spoke in ways I didn’t understand. Part of this problem stemmed from not having acclimated my brain to a new critical language (kind of like when you read Shakespeare, and it takes about 15 minutes before your brain starts to translate it more easily). But part of my struggle arose from the fact that some academics and their proteges can use language that builds walls instead of bridges to ideas.

I understand the appeal of this on one level: If you speak the language, have the code, you can show that you belong to a select group. You gain authority; people don’t know how to question you. But not allowing for questions often means not allowing for understanding. And this lack of comprehension works both ways. More often than not, writers rely on jargon to compensate for a lack of something—the code doesn’t add up, the complexity of syntax belies clear thought.

As a reader or listener, I find the best way to translate jargon is to isolate the writer’s or speaker’s keywords. These might not even be the keywords of the idea at hand—they might be keywords that provide a circuitous path to this idea and on which the writer or speaker relies for want of something more straightforward. Once you crack those key codes, you should be able to create your own sentences that reinstate the idea in a clear and concise way.

As a writer, I would say: Read your work aloud! If it takes you a full minute to get out a sentence and you feel woozy and breathless, please rewrite it. If you’re feeling the effect of an overly complicated sentence, your reader will definitely experience that pain as well, but to an even greater degree. I do know that some people seem programmed to write in a jargon-heavy way. Either they’ve been taught to do so or they’ve tried to mimic their idols. That’s okay if they only plan to communicate with other users of this jargon, but they need to simplify their language if they are to have any hope of engaging a wider audience.

I would love to give you a cautionary example from my own academic prose, but my brain recoils from recondite terms—I am often aware of my own insecurity that I don’t sound intelligent enough because I’m not throwing complex verbiage around. But intelligence and clarity do not spring from jargon—remember that! And I will, too.

So, lacking any egregious jargon of my own to share with you, here is a passage that was “honored” by Philosophy and Literature‘s Bad Writing Contest way back in 1996: “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness—rather than the will to power—of its fall into conceptuality.” I rest my case.