How much jargon is too much jargon? And, how do I know when a word is jargon, and when it’s just the only word we have? “Embouchure” is the best way to describe playing the trumpet.
– Anonymous (Ethnomusicology)
Dr. Editor’s response:
Jargon is necessary in academic writing. It provides a shortcut for concepts that would otherwise take many sentences to describe. It signals the author’s awareness of, and presence within, in-group conversations. Jargon also has stylistic value: Aristotle tells us that the inclusion of uncommon words “is necessary in style, for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental will raise it above the commonplace and mean” (p. 37, trans. Butcher, see also Garber 2003 p. 100).
Academics need jargon, and yet it is widely derided. A 2015 article in The Atlantic, “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing,” describes scholarly writing as “riddled with professional jargon.” The article cites the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize – winning research of Daniel Oppenheimer, which showed that readers judge the authors of hard-to-read texts as less intelligent than the authors of easy-to-read texts. Yet Dr. Oppenheimer’s research focused on the judgments of undergraduate students, not experts, and came with the caveat that experts “find the jargon [of their peers] a great deal more fluent than non-experts” (p. 152).
However, the fact that jargon is unavoidable (sometimes even necessary), for good academic writing isn’t license to use any ol’ 10-dollar word. Let’s look at three different types of jargon and the contexts in which you should and shouldn’t use each type.
Jargon Type 1: Niche terms for your discipline or field
“Embouchure” is indeed the best way to describe playing the trumpet, but only when you’re writing for other trumpet-players. When you’re writing for non-musicologists — if, for example, you want to publish in an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to a time period or movement — include a picture or a description that integrates sensory language, so that your readers can see embouchure in their mind’s eye.
Similarly, “equanimity” is an apt word for psychologists to use when talking amongst themselves, and likewise “oncogenesis,” for medical doctors speaking to other MDs. But if your research has the potential to be relevant across disciplinary fields — if you are, for instance, researching resilience among newly diagnosed cancer patients — you’d do best to speak about “level-headedness” and “the process through which healthy cells become transformed into cancer cells,” respectively. (With thanks to Nature for the concise definition of “oncogenesis”).
Jargon Type 2: Acronyms
Some acronyms (in this case, initialisms, to use some editor jargon) are common knowledge. There’s no value in spelling out “deoxyribonucleic acid” or “computerized tomography” when most people will recognize “DNA” and “CT” scans.
Other acronyms function the same as any other field-specific piece of jargon: VAR is to soccer fans what embouchure is to brass instrument fans. That is, it’s fine to use these terms within niche, closed conversations.
But then there are the acronyms that individual researchers develop within their own writing. If you are the only person who uses “EMF” to mean “embouchure mouth formation,” then I advise against including the acronym, even if you spell out the full term upon first using it. As Dr. Oppenheimer showed, using uncommon language — such as invented acronyms — makes a text harder for a reader to take in, which leads to the reader believing that the writer is less intelligent than the writer of an easy-to-understand text.
Not all long words are bad to write; not all short words are good — and when your short word is an acronym that will be unfamiliar to your reader, I’d encourage you to seriously consider simply spelling out the phrase.
Jargon Type 3: “Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity”
Or, as Dr. Oppenheimer translates, “using long words needlessly” — it’s a cliché of scholarly writing. There’s no need to “utilize” tools when you can simply “use” them. And did your process really “commence,” or did it actually just “start”?
Jargon words and acronyms are one thing; unnecessarily complex words are another thing entirely. It’s fine to use whatever words come to your fingertips when you first draft a piece. Still, you should identify and eliminate these needless ten-dollar words as you get close to publishing your work.
If you want your readers to understand, remember, and cite your work, then it’s in your best interests to reduce the cognitive load that your writing places on your readers.
To identify the jargon and unhelpful long words in your text, get outside of your insider’s perspective on your own writing and your own field’s vocabulary. The best way to do that is to have someone else read your work. Trade manuscripts with a colleague or circulate your paper among your writing group. Hire an editor if you want.
If you’re friendless, writing-group-less, or editor-less, though — or if you like using free algorithms to identify patterns in your writing — then the following two online tools may help you to find and edit the jargon in your work:
To use Simple Writer, cut and paste your text into the “put words here” field, and the little robot will identify (in red) the “less simple words” you’ve included in your text. Some of these red words will be jargon.
Simple Writer was developed by Randall Munroe, whose Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words explains complex machines and systems using a set of the 1000 most common words in English. Thing Explainer is popular in a number of scientific and medical fields: it was, for example, the model used to develop these delightful simplified explanations of the new research coming out of Rebecca Todd’s Motivated Cognition Lab at University of British Columbia.
Going a step beyond Simple Writer, Simplish.org will suggest a rephrased, simplified version of your writing. However, the Simplish robot is imperfect: “It’s fine to use these terms within niche, closed conversations” was simplified as “It is in very small grains to use these terms within special place, closed talks.” Essentially, robots can’t translate well. Still, Simplish’s colour-coded system is helpful in identifying words that may put a barrier in your reader’s path.
Using jargon appropriately
When publishing, the key is to understand the full scope of your work’s implications. Might you be touching on a wicked problem that needs many brains and many perspectives to solve? If so, be diligent in ensuring that a range of readers can understand your work. Alternatively, are you speaking solely to those in the know, and purposefully excluding readings from outside of your subfield? Then, use your niche shorthand.
When applying for research funding that is adjudicated by peer review, write as if you are writing for your niche audience. An analysis of the American National Science Foundation’s data suggests that grant applications that include jargon are associated with receiving more award money:
Grant abstracts that are longer than the average abstract, contain fewer common words, and are written with more verbal certainty receive more money from the NSF (approximately $372 per one-word increase). … According to the data, there is little financial incentive to write according to the NSF’s guideline for plain and simple language. (Markowitz 2019)
How much Dr. Markowitz’s findings can be extrapolated to non-American, non-scientific funding applications has yet to be interrogated. Given, though, the widespread suspicion and emerging evidence that interdisciplinary research is harder to get funded than traditional disciplinary work, there seems to be good justification for treating your next grant application as if it were a publication in a discipline-specific journal.
Jargon is OK — it’s even good in certain contexts. What’s bad is publishing work that address a small, niche audience when people outside of your subfield could benefit from understanding your research.
News from Ask Dr. Editor:
From this column on, I’ll be anonymizing all question-askers. Please continue to submit your academic writing and editing questions via the “contact” page at shortishard.ca.