Got into an interesting conversation about jargon with a friend who writes some fairly esoteric reports, and I’m still thinking about 24 hours later. Here’s the gist.

People pan jargon for good reasons, but there’s another side to the story.

In defese of jargon

My friend pointed out something many technical writers know: jargon is a gift in technical fields, and in them people won’t trust what you say unless you use it.

Jargon is precise and efficient. There’s a reason it emerges in every discipline where people communicate. It also becomes a kind of shibboleth, authenticating writers’ basic qualifications to some extent. That’s good when writing for (or talking to) an audience knowledgible enough to benefit from the enhanced precision and efficiency that jargon provides.

So why do people hate it?

The problems come in when the audience doesn’t. They seem to crop up because of a few different mistakes:

Failure of empathy. The writer sometimes just doesn’t realize that the person will not be able to figure out what they mean. Someone steeped in a discipline will have to cultivate a habit of remembering this.

When trying to avoid jargon for nontechnical audiences, it often feels like I’m being pedantic. However, that’s seldom the way people respond.

Covering Sometimes jargon can mask misunderstanding and thereby misauthenticate the writer. Here jargon really is sort of an enemy, but an enemy to the writer as much as the audience. “Once you can explain it to your UPS driver,” one of my law school professors used to say, “then you understand it.”

Most warning about jargon deal with these two mistakes.

Posturing is when insiders use jargon to be obscure. They realize that the audience won’t understand, and use language that baffles in an attempt to look smarter, more valuable, or more powerful.

This is a much worse error based deeper than a lack of understanding for your audience or your subject matter. It is an attempt to cow the audience rather than communicate with them.

Is coercion ever warranted or good? I don’t have time to get that philosophical. I’m trying to describe why people resent a good thing and sometimes act as if it should not exist at all. Coercing someone is a great way to get them to resent you and whatever means you use to do it.