Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jargon, or Speaking to the choir

One of the questions that I get asked in my technical writing class is whether it's OK to use jargon (terminology known only to the initiated) in a technical document. My first answer is that, since everything is driven by the audience, it's perfectly OK to use words that are known to your audience. I suspect that a choir director, speaking to the choir, expects the singers to understand a number of terms that I, as a member of the general public, wouldn't have a clue about. (There is one scenario where you should use jargon even if your audience doesn't know it but I'll get to that later).

One of the benefits of jargon is that (usually) (a) the 'jargon words' have a more limited meaning than the equivalent terms used by the general public and  (b) the whole audience knows that meaning and no other meaning. For an audience that knows it, jargon delivers 'precision of meaning.' There is a third benefit to using jargon: jargon is usually shorter than the equivalent 'general public' terms which will make your document shorter--a good thing, provided that you aren't being paid by the word.

You can't count on that 'precision of meaning' for a lot of words in general use. For instance, when I was going to public school in the late 1950s (in Regina, Saskatchewan) my teachers decided that I had a speech impediment: a lisp. So I was kept after class to attend sessions to improve my "diction" (meaning enunciation). My mother, by the way, thought this was the biggest waste of time she had heard of. My lisp did, eventually, go away...about the same time, as my mother pointed out, that my two front teeth grew back in.

So in the middle of the 20th century, 'diction' meant the same as 'enunciation' and that was the meaning that I took away with me. Fifty years earlier, at the end of the 19th century, 'diction' meant 'word choice' (hence: Dictionary). I have no idea how the word's meaning morphed* so that well-educated people would use it differently just 50 years later. In my technical writing class, when I ask what the word means, about a third of the class says it means 'word choice' while the rest go for 'enunciation' (I'm ignoring those members of the class who have lapsed in unconciousness).

You can track the change in the meanings of the work at which retrieves definitions from multiple dictionaries. For 'diction', Websters 1913 edition gives 'word choice' as the only meaning; Websters New World College (as close as I could get to the 'radical' third edition) lists both meaning but puts 'word choice' first; Encarta (the most recent dictionary listed) gives both but puts 'enunciation' first. I've seen recent 'English as a Second Language dictionaries' where the only definition given is 'enunciation'.

So if you choose to use the word 'diction' in your sentences you're taking a chance on your audience missing your point. One of the benefits of using jargon is that you're less likely to have that problem--assuming that your audience knows the word at all.

However, there is a reason to use jargon even if your audience isn't familiar with it: When one of your purposes is to prepare your audience to read other documents that do depend on the audience knowing the jargon. The best way to do that is to provide a glossary and direct readers to the glossary for your definitions.

I suppose that you could make a case for introducing new jargon early in your document because, jargon being terser than 'general public' speech, using the jargon later in your document would shorten it. However, that assumes that your audience is going to read your document beginning at the start--not the usual practice for people reading technical documents. Since readers tend to 'skim and scan' documents you'll have to provide a glossary of 'jargon terms' that will allow readers to decode your document. My guess is that whatever time you save for your readers by shortening up the document will be lost in the time they spend looking up new jargon in your glossary and then trying to incorporate that understanding into the original sentence. And that ignores the readers who will simply guess at the meaning of any jargon rather than spend the effort to look it up...

Reading or Read

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