Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Our industry is fraught with jargon. Much of it becomes part of standard English (to the horror of fuddy-duddies like me), and it’s at that point that you can use it with impunity. But until then, you need to know the difference between what you can say in a speech and whether that same term is inappropriate for written text.
Jargon is first defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a confused unintelligible language.” A later definition says that jargon is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” Hmm. So that means that as a collection of technical folks, we’re allowed to talk and write unintelligibly? That can’t be right.
Let’s say that everyone where you work uses the word “solution” when they mean “problem.” If someone says, “this code contains the error solution,” aren’t you a little confused about whether the code contains the problem or the answer to the problem? I know I am.
Jargon might be meaningful when you speak and yet not make sense in the same written sentence. When you speak, there is added information provided by emphasis, inflection, and gesture. That’s why you can get away with serious mangling of language when you talk without crusty editors lobbing geriatric tomatoes at you. But you still need to pay attention to whether you are using a new term where an old one already exists when you speak, and whether the audience will follow along.
Consider the term “hook.” I gather that this word means that one bit of code is attached by code to another bit of code, and that a predictable result will transpire as the code runs. Doesn’t that mean the same thing as “link” then? Or maybe an even older word, like “inserted,” will suffice. Why are we adding to potential confusion by using “hook?” Perhaps, after editing several white papers laden with the word, I still don’t know what is meant by it, and I’m TRYING to know. I’m not a passive reader, after all.
How about the whole intrinsic/native debate? What’s the difference between these words, except that one is clear and the other isn’t? What about calling a computer a “machine.” If you look the word up in the dictionary, you’ll see just how inappropriate it is.
“Made from scratch” might be inexplicable to a non-native English-speaker, or perhaps even to a non-American English speaker (the expression is a euphemism, though, not jargon. It used to be jargon, back when it was a new expression). How does this relate to saying you’ll “scratch something together?” What if our reader toddles over to the dictionary and looks up “scratch?” Webster’s says, “to scrape or dig with the claws or nails.” Yes, eventually you can find definitions saying what these expressions mean, but you almost have to already know what they mean to make sense of the dictionary’s offerings.
One editor I know says that jargon can be nearly eliminated by using bulleted lists or tables. He thinks that forcing yourself to use that sort of linear organization clears things up. He also warns that using jargon in presentation slides can render them nearly useless as handouts, unless the listener takes copious notes. Isn’t the objective of providing handouts to present useful documentation that doesn’t require explanation or copious notes?
You can catch some of your own jargon habits by rereading your own work. Just as you analyze whether or not you’ve covered the topic at hand, look at punctuation, grammar, and word choices. Consider whether or not the words taken literally provide the correct meaning.
Your intention when you sat down to write was to share information, right? So do whatever you can to make sure that your readers won’t have to struggle to understand what you’ve written by using clear language. After all, no one (with any sense) sneers at Hemingway, and he never sent us scurrying to the dictionary. Doesn’t it seem like technical text should be even more methodical?