Lecture 2: Terminology and Jargon

Terminology and Jargon in Written Business Communications

Terminology and jargon both refer to words with a particular application in a subject of study, activity, profession, or field such as business, law, chemistry, football, and sculpture.

Jargon also has several other meanings. It includes abbreviations that act as an “unofficial” language for “official” terminology. For example, police use “corres” for “correspondence,” “intel” for “intelligence.” A doctor might say “stat” (derived from the Latin “statim,” meaning immediately) instead of “urgently” or “right away.”

Jargon also refers to language that is difficult to understand. Among the definitions of jargon in the Merriam-Webster dictionary are “obscure and often pretentious” and “confused, unintelligible language.”

Jargon includes acronyms, except common abbreviations such as U.K., NATO, and U.N. Buzzwords such as “think out of the box” are often considered as jargon. They differ from other jargon by being expressions used across many groups and fields.


Where jargon is useful, where it is a problem

Jargon and terminology are useful for groups of people who share the same training and vocabulary to communicate among themselves efficiently. Mastering the special idiom of a group can create a sense of identity and belonging.

But for those not in the group, jargon and terminology create a barrier to understanding what they are buying or buying into. It also makes outsiders dependent of specialists such as accountants, doctors, financial advisers, and lawyers.

Limiting the use of jargon and terminology is key to improving written communications in the workplace. If referring to specialist terms is essential, you should explain them in plain language.


Plain language

Pressure has grown on organisations to use plain language. Plain language refers to more than vocabulary. It includes readability, structure, conciseness, and other matters of style or usage that enable non-specialists to find the information they need easily. They should be able to understand and act upon the information the first time they read it.

Many businesspeople assume that terminology and jargon are desirable in business communications because everyone around them uses specialist vocabulary. In Australia, legal experts have insisted on using Latin-derived words for the sake of accuracy and precision. Others argued that little if anything was lost in using plain language instead of legalese.


How weak written communications become engrained

Many managers recognise their organisations need to communicate with the public in plain language. But getting staff to cooperate with editors to improve the quality of communications is difficult. For one, professionals have spent years becoming experts in their fields. They may consider terminology a mark of distinction. Or they may be reluctant to “dumb down” their writing at the behest of an editor or writer who probably lacks their expertise. A bigger issue is often that explaining complex ideas in simple vocabulary takes more time than using jargon. Rewriting in plain language can reveal holes in an argument.

An editor or writer needs to be diplomatic in editing the work of non-professional writers. This may explain why many big-name consultancies and financial companies advertise jobs for writers and editors requiring the candidates to have “strong interpersonal skills for interacting directly” with senior specialists.

In my own freelance editing work, I have been told by economists that the problem was not jargon or terminology, but rather, my ignorance. Though I am not an economist, I have studied economics as an undergraduate and at business school. I have also covered economics, business, and financial markets as a journalist for many years. Often, the problem was not that I did not understand the jargon used in a financial analysis I had to edit, but that I did understand enough to see holes in the argument.


Jargon linked to lower professional status

Recently, a team of business professors have discovered another reason why those who insist on using jargon and terminology should think again. Jargon and terminology instead of being a mark of authority, may be a sign of the author’s lack of conviction in their credentials, according to a 2020 research paper by three professors from the business schools of Columbia University and the University of Southern California.

They conducted nine studies that together included analyses of 64,000 dissertations showing that the authors of lower-status schools used more jargon and terminology than those from the most prestigious institutions. In other words, jargon and terminology were a trademark of mediocrity.

Ironically, the abstract for the research paper contains a quite a bit of terminology and jargon. At the end of this section, you will get a chance to rewrite the abstract in plain language.


Other reasons to avoid jargon

Lois Yurow, founder and president of Investor Communications Services, LLC, in a 2007 paper entitled “Four Reasons to Use Plain English in Your Securities Disclosure Document,” gave the following rationale for using plain English in reports to investors:

·                it shows respect for clients

·                the SEC requires plain English in prospectuses and other documents

·                rewriting a document in plain English “will usually expose a mistake or ambiguity because it will be the first time in a long time that anyone actually analysed the text”

·                it saves money because staff need less training to understand the documents, professionals understand the documents better and make better recommendations, and there are fewer disputes about whether the company has disclosed business details as required by law