Category Archives: style

The Power of Jargon

Jargon is specialized language specific to times, places, groups, and settings.  Wherever you happen to be in communication with others involved with your particular activity, you will encounter and use jargon.  I am a teacher, and I use words like spiraling, chunking, scaffolding, phonemes, WAIS, and dysgraphia in my daily professional communication without even thinking about it.  More specific to my own workplace (and therefore unintelligible to teachers at other schools) are such terms as LA, 86 Lounge, The Structure, and red binder.

Jargon is an important and necessary facet of regular communication.  It allows us to communicate quickly and accurately with others who have similar fields of experience because we don’t have to stop and explain the meanings of our terms and may instead focus on whatever the primary purpose of our communication is.  In this way, jargon unites people who already know the terms.

On the other hand, jargon can also be a major source of separation and alienation.  New teachers to my school, for example, must be taught the weird meanings of words we use specifically on my campus, or else they will be missing important details relevant to their jobs.  A new teacher can easily be overwhelmed and alienated by too much of this at once.  Luckily, I work with nice people who want communication to be a unifier and not a divider.

Not everyone is this lucky.  Some people intentionally use jargon so that others don’t know what is being said, or else they use it in order to make what they’re talking about seem difficult and special.  The world of higher learning is famous for this.  People who have knowledge and are charged with imparting it on others often want to make it as challenging as possible.  Whether this is an intentional goal or not varies, of course, from person to person, but there is a reason almost every textbook you’ve ever read was a pain in the neck to get through.

This is why I try to avoid the grammatical mumbo-jumbo as much as I can.  The … for Dummies series of books and the similar Complete Idiot’s Guide to … series do the same thing.  By removing as much jargon as possible, the books communicate knowledge in small, bite-sized, easy-to-understand pieces and are therefore much more effective as text books.  I am a proud owner of several such books and don’t consider myself a Dummy or an Idiot for enjoying them as much as I do.

In your communication with others, be aware of your use of jargon.  For people who know what you mean, it is a powerful tool.  For people who might not know what you mean, it’s as powerful a weapon.

Economical but Never Cheap

I’m still working on the exact wording of this thought, but I once wrote on my chalkboard for the benefit of my ninth-grade English students, “Good writing is economical but never cheap.”  Generally speaking, I explained, you want to use fewer words in order to convey more meaning, a guideline I ignore just about all the time, at least in first drafts.  However, one can go too far in taking shortcuts.  Abbreviations, symbols, and cliches are all cutting corners beyond frugality and into cheapness, and they often result in confusing, embarrassing, or completely inappropriate writing.

In your formal writing, be thrifty with your words but never stoop!

Is it Purple, Puce, Lavender, or Niggardly?

In 1999, David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word niggardly in reference to the city’s budget. One of Howard’s co-workers, who was black, took offense and complained to the mayor, apparently unaware that the word means “miserly” or “stingy.” The co-worker asked for Howard’s resignation; Howard offered it; the mayor accepted it.

The flap inspired a great deal of discussion in the media and in offices about racial sensitivity, political correctness, and whether people with strong vocabularies carry a burden of responsibility for those with weaker vocabularies.

Actually, I didn’t hear much of that last bit in the media, but as a teacher of language, I did engage in quite a lot of it with my colleagues. On one hand, a powerful vocabulary helps people to communicate clearly, specifically, and effectively. If I have a formal function to attend and I ask my date what color she’s wearing (so I can pick a matching tie, of course), she could say “purple,” and I’ll probably find a tie that’s pretty close, and all will be fine. However, if she says “puce,” I’ll have a much clearer picture in my head about what kind of purple she’s wearing, and I will much more effectively find a matching tie.

What, you don’t have a puce tie?

As a teacher of language, I very deliberately use words all the time that I know my students don’t know the meanings of. The best way to strengthen vocabulary is to hear it in correct use and then to try it out yourself, and I want my students to understand that words like puce, affective, and coy are not just words memorized off of some SAT list, but meaningful tools for good communication, and that learned people use them all the time.

On the other hand, the ultimate goal of language is communication, so unclear communication without a purpose (I consider the puce-affective-coy example above to be unclear communication WITH a purpose) is destructive. A writer must always be aware of his or her audience, and if there’s a chance that the use of a certain word will detract from the writer’s purpose (keeping in mind that sometimes the purpose is to incite offense), the word must be strongly considered for exclusion.

It would be nice if we all had the same working vocabulary, and David Howard should probably have been able to expect that his colleague knew what he meant. In a civil office, the colleague should have felt free to express directly to Howard that he had taken offense; Howard’s response should have been to apologize for the unintended offense (which he did). The proper response to the apology would have been an apology to Howard for misunderstanding the communication.

All this is to say that there is no blanket answer to the question of whether or not this word is appropriate for professional or personal use. According to the Wikipedia article I linked above, the head of the NAACP felt in the Howard aftermath that dictionaries should be issued to any of the D.C. mayor’s staff who needed one; Howard, however, felt that he had not been sensitive about how a word that sounds like a racial slur could really distract from the purpose of the communication. They are both right.

In your professional and personal communication, always remember your audience and keep in mind the power of your words. One of the benefits of knowing a word like puce is knowing when it’s the wrong word.

While Wiping the Photocopier with Facial Tissue, I Cut My Finger and Needed an Adhesive Strip

You already know that Kleenex, Xerox, and Band-Aid are brand-names and that they have become so much the standards in their markets that many people use their names to refer generically to the products themselves, regardless of manufacturer. When most of us ask a friend for a Kleenex, for example, we are not referring specifically to the Kleenex brand, and we claim to be Xeroxing something even if the photocopying is being done on a Canon copier.

Pick up any magazine whose target readership is professional writers, and you will see how  companies struggle aggressively against this genericizing of their brand names. There’s a reason writers are being targeted: A huge step in a brand name’s becoming a generic term is the addition of the brand name to the general lexicon. If it can be demonstrated in court that almost EVERYBODY uses Kleenex to refer to facial tissue and that the Johnson & Johnson company has not worked to prevent this, the brand name is much more likely to become legally generic.

Companies who own the brand names would like you either to write Kleenex brand or Kleenex facial tissue, attaching either the acknowledgment of the brand name or the product’s generic description to the name itself, at least on first mention. As you have undoubtedly already observed, both suggestions are severely lacking in elegance. Additionally, the writer of creative prose who wishes not to contribute to the genericizing of brand names is faced with the dilemma of either writing what a character would actually say or contributing to companies’ losing their grips on their products’ names.

It’s an inconvenience, but I believe in a right and wrong here, and it is worthwhile always to strive to be right. If your character would never say, “Somebody get me an adhesive strip!” or “Somebody get me a Band-Aid brand!” you’ve got to find a plausible, elegant way to communicate the same idea. One way might be to write, “Somebody get me something to put on this cut!” or “Please bring the first-aid kit!” These sound more realistic than the other suggestions and still communicate enough to the reader.

There’s always another way to write anything. Please consider respecting brand names.

Just Say It

In general, it’s a good idea to avoid the repetitious use of words. If in your proofreading you notice you use great or interesting more than a couple of times per page, you might want to grab that red pen and find some synonyms. However, there are certain words that, by virtue of their ubiquitousness, become almost invisible, and this invisibility serves you well.

“You bought a new dress,” he observed.

“Yes,” she replied, “I bought it for you.”

He exclaimed, “I’m not sure that’s my size!”

“Oh, I think it’s exactly the right size,” she countered.

In this case, using all these words when said would have been just fine is a major distraction. You want the reader’s focus to be on the quotes, not on the way you describe the quotes, and said is practically invisible. Grab a great novel like Lonesome Dove and you’ll see what I mean. Conversations fly across the pages and you barely notice the verbs Larry McMurtry uses to describe them. He almost exclusively uses said. In this way, when you really, really want to underscore the fact that something someone says is muttered, mumbled, shouted, or spat, you can use those words to much more pleasing effect.

This Entry’s Not What You Think It’s About. And I Mean That.

Sometimes, when you have a writing task to get through, you put it off for as long as you can. And even though you know all you have to do is type the first few words in order to be off and running, you still put it off. Something about the task keeps you from hitting those keys. So you play a few games of Shanghai. Or you decide that NOW is the time to clean out your email reader’s SENT folder. And the task just eats away at you until you can’t stand it! And THEN, when you have run out of excuses, you FORCE yourself to write, and everything just kind of flows out of your fingertips, and you say, “Hey. That wasn’t too bad!” You convince yourself that this is proof that you work better under pressure.

Hopefully, after you say that, you look again at your work and notice that you begin FAR too many sentences with conjunctions! Did you notice that in the paragraph above, a whopping five of eight sentences begin with conjunctions? It’s an easy thing to let happen, because it’s the way we speak, and it doesn’t look too bad.

There’s a rule that says you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, and sometimes because). It’s a rule that I think you should feel free to break, but listen: You have to be judicious about it! Do it because it’s exactly the way you want that sentence to sound, and don’t do it too often! I usually write something the way it comes out, then go back and take out ALL the conjunctions that begin sentences, then decide if I want to put any back. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is something you should probably use no more than once every page, not once every paragraph, in your formal (or otherwise important) writing.

And if you never, ever do it, you’ll never be wrong!