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Keep It Jargon-free

By Nick Wright

Someone once defined a sales fax as a ‘high-ranking digital envoy.’

Jargon is the language of specialized terms used by a group or profession. It’s common shorthand among experts and used sensibly can be a quick and efficient way of communicating. Most jargon consists of unfamiliar terms, abstract words, non-existent words and acronyms and abbreviations, with an occasional euphemism thrown in for good measure. Every profession, trade and organization has its own specialized terms.



cost-push inflation, marginal-cost pricing, J-curve


ASCII, RAM, disk drive, intranets


annuitants, arbitrate, debentures, gilts, sum assured


ASA rating, f-stop, teleconverter, TTL metering

Good communication or bad communication?

Jargon is a strange creature. We all complain about jargon, yet everyone writes it and no one ever admits using it. The reason? Jargon can be the worst form of communication—and the best.

A minicab driver picks up the radio and calls base.

Cabbie: B52 Base: C5 Cabbie: OK Passenger: Excuse me, could you explain what that was all about? Cabbie: I just wanted to know where to pick up my next fare.

At the Office of National Statistics

Statistician: Each Geographical Statistical Output (GSO)depicts an enumeration district.

Manager: Do you mean ‘each map’?

Statistician: No. We cannot call it a map because each GSO also contains a table.

Manager: OK. It’s a map with a table.

Examples of jargon

Human resources departments never sack or fire anyone. For example, an American company called firing staff: “a refocusing of the company’s skills-set”. Here are other examples of human resources-speak.

  • career alternative enhancement program
  • career-change opportunity
  • dehiring staff
  • derecruiting resources
  • downsizing employment
  • employee reduction activities
  • implementing a skills mix adjustment
  • negative employee retention
  • optimizing outplacement potential
  • rectification of a workforce imbalance
  • redundancy elimination
  • right-sizing employment
  • selecting out manpower
  • strategic downsizing
  • vocation relocation policy

If the human resources department uses one of these phrases to fire you, take heart, you’re not unemployed. You’re simply “in an orderly transition between career changes while undergoing a period of non-waged involuntary leisure during your temporary outplacement.”

The military

Jargon Plain
arbitrarily deprive of life kill people
render non-viable kill people
terminate with extreme prejudice kill people
armed reconnaissance bombing enemy troops
servicing the target bombing enemy troops
terrain alteration bombing enemy troops
accidental delivery of ordnance bombing your own troops
friendly fire bombing your own troops
incontinent ordnance bombing your own troops


Jargon Plain
meaningful statistical downturn recession
period of economic adjustment recession
negative economic growth recession
interruption of economic expansion recession


Jargon Plain
the involuntary undomiciled the homeless
the economically marginalized unemployed


Jargon Plain
vehicle appearance operative car-washer
environmental hygienist janitor

Readers see through such dressing-up of the truth. If you want to hide the truth, don’t tell a categorical inaccuracy, a counter-factual proposition, an inoperative statement, a strategic misrepresentation, or a terminological inexactitude —simply tell a lie.

Acronyms and abbreviations

The English Defence Minister, George Robertson, tried cutting out abbreviations and acronyms at the Ministry of Defence. “I soon realized solving Bosnia would be easier.”

Avoid as many as you can.

Try to keep them to a maximum of two a page.

Use them only if they are convenient for your readers.

Make sure all your readers know exactly what they mean.

Use them if spelling them out would annoy your readers.

Convert as many as possible into words.

Use full words. For example: Vice President, not VP.

Use a shortened word form. For example: each camera, not each CCTV unit.

Use an alternative. For example: computer memory, not RAM.

If you must use an abbreviation or acronym, spell it out the first time you use it. For example: Computer-based training (CBT).

If your readers know the abbreviation or acronym, there’s no need to spell it out.

Other problems with Acronyms and Abbreviations

  1. They are often inconsistent, even in the same document. For example: IBM and I.B.M.

  2. They can cause unintentional repetition.
    • BACS system—Banks’ Automated Clearing System System.
    • PIN number—Personal Identification Number Number.
    • ATM machine—Automated Teller Machine Machine.
  3. They cause mistakes and inconsistencies with apostrophes.

  4. The rules for plurals and possessives of abbreviations are the same rules as those for full words. For example: The three PCs in the RDU’s conference room need new screens.

  5. They often appear only once in a document. Writers go to the trouble of defining an abbreviation, never to use it again in the document.

The last word

“Let abbreviations and acronyms RIP”