I work in a technical field. Is it okay to use jargon?

If you’ve ever been trained in plain English or professional writing, you’ve probably been told to avoid jargon at all costs. However, I think there’s room for more nuance. First, let’s look at the definition of jargon.

The Macquarie Dictionary has three main definitions of jargon:

  1. the language peculiar to a trade, profession, or other group
  2. pretentious language characterised by the use of uncommon or unfamiliar words
  3. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.

It’s clear that writers of any sort should avoid definitions 2 and 3. Good writing should be easily understood by your audience, and pretentiousness has no place in it. Even academic writing, where pretentious language is often used as a supposed marker of intelligence, is thankfully now moving much more towards plain language and accessibility.

But what about definition 1? This is where audience becomes important.

Technical or profession-specific language is not a problem in and of itself. Often it provides nuance that gets lost when simpler terms are used. What matters is your audience. If you’re writing for other professionals in your field, you can use more technical language and know that you’ll be understood. However, if you’re writing for a general audience – on a website, for example – you need to use language they will understand. Often this means swapping technical terms for more commonly understood words, and checking for any assumed knowledge. This isn’t ‘dumbing down’; it’s meeting your audience where they’re at. In some fields, such as public health, doing this well can literally be the difference between life and death. In others, such as law, where there’s a growing push for the use of plain language, it impacts important things like informed consent.

With any writing, the first thing you should ask yourself is ‘Who am I writing for?’. Your answer to that will determine whether or not jargon is acceptable.

Published by Louise Merrington

Louise Merrington is a writer and IPEd Accredited Editor specialising in plain English editing for government, businesses, professional associations and non-profits. She is also the author of several novels, under the name L.M. Merrington.

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