To Jargon or Not To Jargon in Technical Writing
To jargon, or not to jargon: that is the question. Although technical writing and the word ‘jargon’ appeared long before Shakespeare, this is not exactly the famous question posed by Hamlet.
Today it is a tricky matter which occupies the minds of specialists in technical communication and all sorts of writing. But first of all what is jargon?
The word ‘jargon’ first appeared in French meaning ‘the twittering and chattering of birds’. Then in the fourteenth century it migrated into the English language with its meaning extended to ‘meaningless talk’ or ‘gibberish’. The Longman Dictionary of Business English defines jargon as:
(1) language, written or spoken, that is difficult or impossible for an ordinary person to understand because it is full of words known only to specialists;
(2) language that uses words that are unnecessarily long and is badly put together.
But do we need jargon in user guides, manuals, online help, knowledge bases and other sorts of technical documentation? As usual in technical writing, the answer isn’t straightforward.
Jargon in Technical Writing
Every field of science and engineering has its own special language. Technical jargon makes information easier to understand for your readers and using the ‘insiders’ vocabulary shows that you know the ropes. Technical terminology is helpful when communicating with professionals in your field.
When used in an appropriate context, technical language helps you communicate precisely with other specialists who possess the same level of expertise as your own. In case you are not sure about the expertise of your target audience, you should minimize the use of technical language in your document.
When used inappropriately, jargon makes it harder for readers to perceive information. This is a frequent case of acronyms and abbreviations. BTW, check out this article if you want to learn more about avoiding common mistakes in user manuals.
For those technical writers who struggle to decide whether to use jargon or not, the main recommendation is to mind your audience and your purpose in writing for them. In case your target audience isn’t familiar with the terms you should either not use them or introduce the readers into them right in the text, in a footnote or in a glossary at the front or at the end of your document. If your documentation is aimed at professionals, be sure to list all the mentioned technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations in a special glossary for any audience.
Practical Advice on Jargon Usage in User Manuals
Microsoft Style Guide Edition 4 refers to jargon as ‘the technical language that is used by some particular profession or other group’. It is said that in the right context jargon serves as ‘verbal shorthand for well-understood concerts’, otherwise it makes the documents hard to read especially for worldwide users. It also provides 3 cases when jargon should be avoided in user manuals:
- You can use a more familiar term instead;
- The term obscures rather than clarifies meaning (e.g. glyph instead of symbol);
- The term does not belong to the sphere of the document (e.g. leverage the new technology instead of to take advantage of the new technology).
So to sum up, the general recommendations for using jargon in technical writing are:
- Leave out jargon if it can be replaced by a more familiar term or which does not belong to the field of your target audience;
- Make the definitions of the jargon terms clear and easy to understand;
- If possible provide your definitions with examples;
- Read the text aloud from the position of your documentation readers and remove or replace the pieces which grate on ears;
- Know your audience;
- Avoid acronyms;
- Avoid Latin and non-English words.
Good technical writing clarifies technical jargon; that is, it presents useful information that is clear and easy to understand for the target audience. This is a great tool in the hands of an experienced technical writer. Poor technical writing, on the other hand, often creates unnecessary technical jargon and makes the writing harder to read, thus preventing technical communication.
Good Luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team — Online Documentation & Technical Writing Tools
Originally published at https://clickhelp.com.