Avoiding Jargon in your publications

1. DEFINITION OF JARGON

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition), definitions ofjargon include the following: (1) “confused unintelligible language”; (2) “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”; (3) “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.”

The first and third types of jargon should be avoided. The second type (“technical terminology”) is much more difficult to avoid in scientific writing, and it may be used if readers already are familiar with it or if you have defined or explained it. If you are writing for a technically trained audience, only the unusual technical terms need explanation.

2. MUMBLESPEAK AND OTHER SINS

The most common type of verbosity that afflicts authors is jargon. This syn­drome is characterized, in extreme cases, by the total omission of one-syllable words. Writers with this affliction never use anything—they utilize. They never do—they perform. They never start—they initiate. They never end—they finalize (or terminate). They never make—they fabricate. They use initial for first, ultimate for last, prior to for before, subsequent to for after, militate against for prohibit, sufficient for enough, and a plethora for too much. An occasional author will slip and use the word drug, but most will salivate like Pavlov’s dogs in anticipation of using chemotherapeutic agent. (We do hope that the name Pavlov rings a bell.) Who would use the three-letter word now instead of the elegant expres­sion at this point in time?

Stuart Chase (1954) told the story of the plumber who wrote to the Bureau of Standards saying he had found that hydrochloric acid is good for cleaning out clogged drains. The bureau wrote back, “The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic perma­nence.” The plumber replied that he was glad the bureau agreed. The bureau tried again, writing, “We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues with hydrochloric acid, and suggest that you use an alternate procedure.” The plumber again said that he was glad that the bureau agreed with him. Finally, the bureau wrote to the plumber, “Don’t use hydro­chloric acid; it eats hell out of the pipes.”

Should we liken the scientist to a plumber, or is the scientist perhaps more exalted? With that doctor of philosophy degree, should the scientist know some philosophy? We agree with John W. Gardner, who said, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water” (Science News, p. 137, March 2, 1974).

We like the way that Aaronson (1977) put it: “But too often the jargon of scientific specialists is like political rhetoric and bureaucratic mumble-speak: ugly-sounding, difficult to understand, and clumsy. Those who use it often do so because they prefer pretentious, abstract words to simple, concrete ones.”

The trouble with jargon is that it is a special language, the meaning of which is known only to a specialized “in” group. Science should be universal, and therefore every scientific paper should be written in a universal language.

Of course, you will have to use specialized terminology on occasion. If such terminology is readily understandable to practitioners and students in the field, there is no problem. If the terminology is not recognizable to any por­tion of your potential audience, you should (1) use simpler terminology or (2) carefully define the esoteric terms (jargon) that you are using. In short, you should not write for the half-dozen or so people who are doing exactly your kind of work. You should write for the hundreds of people whose work is only slightly related to yours but who may want or need to know something about your work.

3. MOTTOES TO LIVE BY

Here are a few important concepts that all readers of this book should master. They are, however, expressed in typical scientific jargon. With a little effort you can probably translate these sentences into simple English:

  1. As a case in point, other authorities have proposed that slumbering canines are best left in a recumbent position.
  2. An incredibly insatiable desire to understand that which was going on led to the demise of this particular Felis catus.
  3. There is a large body of experimental evidence which clearly indicates that members of the genus Mus tend to engage in recreational activity while the feline is remote from the locale.
  4. From time immemorial, it has been known that the ingestion of an “apple” (that is, the pome fruit of any tree of the genus Malus, said fruit being usually round in shape and red, yellow, or greenish in color) on a diurnal basis will with absolute certainty keep a primary member of the health care establishment absent from one’s local environment.
  5. Even with the most sophisticated experimental protocol, it is exceed­ingly unlikely that the capacity to perform novel feats of legerdemain can be instilled in a superannuated canine.
  6. A sedimentary conglomerate in motion down a declivity gains no addi­tion of mossy material.
  7. The resultant experimental data indicate that there is no utility in bela­boring a deceased equine.

If you had trouble with any of the above, here are the jargon-free transla­tions:

  1. Let sleeping dogs lie.
  2. Curiosity killed the cat.
  3. When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
  4. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  5. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.
  6. A rolling stone gathers no moss.
  7. Don’t beat a dead horse.

4. BUREAUCRATESE

Regrettably, too much scientific writing fits the first and third definitions of jargon. All too often, scientists write like the legendary Henry B. Quill, the bureaucrat described by Meyer (1977): “Quill had mastered the mother tongue of government. He smothered his verbs, camouflaged his subjects and hid everything in an undergrowth of modifiers. He braided, beaded and fringed, giving elaborate expression to negligible thoughts, weasling [sic], hedging and announcing the obvious. He spread generality like flood waters in a long, low valley. He sprinkled everything with aspects, feasibilities, alternatives, effec­tuations, analyzations, maximizations, implementations, contraindications and appurtenances. At his best, complete immobility set in, lasting sometimes for dozens of pages.”

Some jargon, or bureaucratese, consists of clear, simple words but contains so many words that the meaning is not readily evident. Examine the following, an important federal regulation (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Para­graph 50.10) designed to protect trees from injury; this notice was posted in National Capital Park and Planning Commission recreation areas in the Wash­ington area:

TREES, SHRUBS, PLANTS, GRASS
AND OTHER VEGETATION

(a) General Injury. No person shall prune, cut, carry away, pull up, dig, fell, bore, chop, saw, chip, pick, move, sever, climb, molest, take, break, deface, destroy, set fire to, burn, scorch, carve, paint, mark, or in any manner inter­fere with, tamper, mutilate, misuse, disturb or damage any tree, shrub, plant, grass, flower, or part thereof, nor shall any person permit any chemical, whether solid, fluid or gaseous to seep, drip, drain or be emp­tied, sprayed, dusted or injected upon, about or into any tree, shrub, plant, grass, flower or part thereof except when specifically authorized by competent authority; nor shall any person build fires or station or use any tar kettle, heater, road roller or other engine within an area covered by this part in such a manner that the vapor, fumes or heat therefrom may injure any tree or other vegetation.

(TRANSLATION: Don’t mess with growing things.)

Jargon does not necessarily involve the use of specialized words. Faced with a choice of two words, the jargonist always selects the longer one. The jargonist really gets his jollies, however, by turning short, simple statements into long strings of words. And, usually, the longer word or the longer series of words is not as clear as the simpler expression. We challenge anyone to show how “at this point in time” means, in its cumbersome way, more than the simple word “now.” The concept denoted by “if” is not improved by substituting the pomp­ous expression “in the event that.”

5. SPECIAL CASES

Perhaps the worst offender is the word “case.” There is no problem with a case of canned goods or even a case of flu. However, 99 percent of the uses of “case” are jargon. In case you think that 99 percent is too high, make your own study. Even if this percentage is too high, a good case could be made for the fact that “case” is used in too many cases. Better and shorter usage should be substi­tuted: “in this case” means “here”; “in most cases” means “usually”; “in all cases” means “always”; “in no cases” means “never.” (We also have issues with “issues.” And we wish to highlight “highlight.” In formal writing, limit use of these words to their specific meanings.)

Still another word that causes trouble (in some cases) is “about,” not because it is used but because it is avoided. As pointed out by Weiss (1982), writers seem unwilling to use the clear, plain “about” and instead use wordier and less-clear substitutes such as the following:

Appendix 2 contains some “Words and Expressions to Avoid.” A similar list well worth consulting was published by O’Connor and Woodford (1975). It is not necessarily improper to use any of these words or expressions occasionally; if you use them repeatedly, however, you are writing in jargon and your read­ers are suffering.

Perhaps the most common way of creating a new word is the jargonist’s habit of turning nouns into verbs. One example is use of the word “interface” to mean “communicate”; the only time people can interface is when they kiss. And a classic example appeared in a manuscript that read: “One risks exposure when swimming in ponds or streams near which cattle have been pasturized.” The copy editor, knowing that there is no such word as “pasturized,” changed it to “pasteurized.” (There may be nothing wrong with that. If you can pasteur­ize milk, presumably you can pasteurize the original container.)

In their own pastures, scientists are, of course, very expert, but they often succumb to pedantic, jargonistic, and useless expressions, telling the reader
more than the reader wants or needs to know. As the English novelist George Eliot said: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of this fact.”

If you must show off your marvelous vocabulary, make sure you use the right words. Consider the story that Lederer (1987) told about NASA scientist Wernher von Braun. “After one of his talks, von Braun found himself clinking cocktail glasses with an adoring woman from the audience.

“ ‘Dr. von Braun,’ the woman gushed, ‘I just loved your speech, and I found it of absolutely infinitesimal value!’

“ ‘Well then,’ von Braun gulped, ‘I guess I’ll have it published posthumously.’

“ ‘Oh yes!’ the woman came right back. ‘And the sooner the better.’ ”

Or consider the two adventuresome hot-air balloonists who, slowly descend­ing after a long trip on a cloudy day, looked at the terrain below and had not the faintest idea where they were. It so happens that they were drifting over the grounds of one of our more famous scientific research institutes. When the bal­loonists saw a man walking along the side of a road, one called out, “Hey, mister, where are we?” The man looked up, took in the situation, and, after a few moments of reflection, said, “You’re in a hot-air balloon.” One balloonist turned to the other and said, “I’ll bet that man is a scientist.” The other balloon­ist asked, “What makes you think so?” To which the first replied, “His answer is perfectly accurate—and totally useless.”

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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