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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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In Defense of Jargon

Jargon, even the name has a harsh ring to it. Can anyone but an author love a title like[1]: Walking near a Conformal Fixed Point: the 2-d O(3) Model at theta near pi as a Test Case? “How can anyone take science seriously when it uses so much jargon?” said the teamster[2] as he told his helper to fasten the traces to the whiffletree and check the tugs and hames straps. Jargon is everywhere and not unique to science.  While you may not understand what the teamster is talking about, my father would have understood instantly and then gone to get a jag of wood.

But back to jargon.  To the uninitiated the above title, like the teamsters words, seems like so much gobbledygook.  But to the initiated, those working in the field, it is a precise statement and easily understood.  Trying to put the title, or the teamster’s words, in a form understandable to the layperson would have been a fool’s errand. In making it understandable to a more general audience, the precision would have been lost and we would probably never have gotten that jag of wood.  That would have been unfortunate as Nova Scotian winters can be cold.

One of the principles of all good writing is to tailor the communication to the intended audience.  When I am helping put together a report for TRIUMF, the instructions to the authors always includes a statement about the intended audience.  Even then, the good authors frequently ask me to make the description of the intended audience more precise.  Life gets more complicated when a document has more than one intended audience. Then it is necessary to have a layered document where introductory sections are understandable by an intelligent layperson while the later sections are directed at the specialist. One is reminded of the old joke about the structure of good seminar: The speaker starts at a low level understandable by anyone and then as the seminar progresses he becomes more technical and less understandable so that by the end, even the speaker does not know what he is talking about.  Well, perhaps that is getting a little too carried away, but one can error on either side, by making the writing too technical for the audience or not technical enough.

Similarly, the reader has to realize that the writing may not be directed at him or her. We, as people with technical expertise, have to be careful not to judge non-technical writing too harshly because it does not capture all the subtle nuances we are aware of. Including them would lose the layperson. It is a fine line between not confusing the layman and misleading him. When I am reading an article directed at a general audience, on a topic I am an expert in, I find I have to translate the layman’s language back to the technical language before I can understand it. That is as it should be.

Conversely, in fields we are not experts in, we should not criticize technical writing as being too filled with jargon. This latter mistake is made frequently by politicians and commentators who criticize technical writing due to ignorance. Few have the wisdom of the former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who said on opening TRIUMF, “I do not know what a cyclotron is, but I am glad Canada has one.” It is a rare politician who has the confidence to admit ignorance.  As an undergraduate student, I picked up a copy of Rose’s book:  Elementary Theory of Angular Momentum. That is when I learned one should be leery of books with elementary in the title[3]. If that is an elementary book, I would hate to have to read an advanced one. It is a good book but I, at that stage in my career, was not the intended audience.

Words only have meaning within the context they are used.  When used with a person possessing a similar background, the context does not have to be spelled out. Thus, in conversation with a colleague I have worked with for some time a lot is understood without being stated explicitly. Jargon speeds up communication and makes it less prone to misunderstanding. On the other hand, with people who are not acquainted with the field, we have to spell out the background assumptions and suppress the details that are only of interest to the expert.

In the end, it is quite unfortunate that jargon has been abused and hence has received a bad name.  In technical writing, jargon or technical terms are not only acceptable but necessary. So press on and employ jargon­—but only where appropriate.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] First title on the lattice archive the day I checked to get an example.

[2] The kind that drives horses.

[3] Books with elementary in the title are usually advanced while those with advanced in the tile are usually elementary.


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