Image: Word cloud based on selections from Oke, Heard, and Lundholm 2014
I posted last month about the etymology of the life-history term semelparity (it’s more interesting than it sounds), and that got me thinking about jargon. Our scientific literature has a reputation for being turgid, tedious, and difficult to read. There are many reasons for this (I’ve written about some, and see a recent Atlantic essay here), but our technical terminology is part of it. We use lots of technical words, newly coined words, and long words (and also lots of condensed “words” that serve as shorthand for longer things*). We have allosteric, baryon, disconformity, fractal, metalloid, and on and on and on. I work in part with the gall-forming moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidiginis. Good grief.
By “technical terminology”, you might think I mean “jargon”, but not quite, and that’s my point today. We collectively have a lot to say about the evils of jargon**, and we seem pretty much unanimous that our demanding technical terminology is a weakness in our writing. And in some ways it is, although of course it’s not that simple.
Technical terminology has a role to play in our scientific writing. Used well, it provides precision and, as a result, clarity. It’s important that we leave readers in no doubt about exactly what we mean – and achieving this may require words we probably wouldn’t use in casual conversation. If it matters that a reader knows we used polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis to separate substances – as opposed to any number of other polysyllabic methods – then our only option is to say so. When used this way, technical terminology is the servant and we’re the master, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem arises, and technical terminology becomes jargon, when we lose sight of the tradeoffs that come with our drive for precision. There are two:
- First, using technical terminology narrows our audience: we end up communicating only with those who already understand our language. That may be perfectly fine: my research papers in ecology may not be intelligible to a geochemical volcanologist, but few of those will want to read them anyway. When I write for broader audiences, I use a different vocabulary, and accept some resulting loss of precision. Every writer should realize that what’s clear and precise terminology for one audience is jargon for another.
- Second, even for readers familiar with their field’s terminology, the mental demands of processing complex sentences full of technical words can slow reading. The most technical terminology, therefore, should be used where it’s needed, but not elsewhere. I’m a big fan of the word “henceforth” used this way: “….Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis (henceforth ‘gall moth’…)”. This lets the writer achieve precision with one use of the technical term, but also ease the reader’s burden with a simpler substitute for the rest of the paper.
It doesn’t help that many writers seem to prefer long and technical words even when they aren’t necessary or helpful. Sometimes this is unconscious: we’re so used to reading complex academic prose that we emulate it without even noticing***. But we’ve all dealt with writers who do it on purpose, probably because popular wisdom holds that people who use big words and complicated sentences seem more intelligent (try Googling lists of “Ten Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter.”)
This temptation to use long, jargony words is actually nothing new. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the new Norman (French) power made French the language of government and Church, while the lower classes continued to use Old English. As English absorbed French words, this class distinction fed the idea that the French-origin words were serious and professional, while the (shorter) Old English words were coarse and common. Noblemen perspire and have flatulence, but commoners sweat and fart (mind you, it smells the same). The Renaissance (and later) use of Latin as the language of scholarship had a similar effect, leaving us with a deep and unfortunate history of believing that longer words indicate deeper thought.
But surely we could test this notion scientifically. Do readers actually think more highly of text packed with jargon? One study compared texts printed in easy- and hard-to-read fonts (varying difficulty independent of content), and found that undergraduate readers scored the harder-to-read texts as better written (Galak and Nelson 2011). Most work, though, finds the opposite: people judge texts to be of higher quality when they use clearer fonts, smaller words, and simpler sentences (e.g., Oppenheimer 2006). And of course even if jargon did help, it could do so only if people actually read it – and surely readership declines as difficulty rises. Isaac Newton knew this, and used it deliberately to repel readers: he boasted of writing his Principia Mathematica in difficult mathematical language “to avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematics”.****
So do we need semelparity and its ilk? Yes, of course we do; but no more often than necessary, and in their place, where they’re precise technical terminology, not jargon. Such careful usage keeps words our servants as we work to our primary goal as writers: achieving crystal-clear communication with our intended readers.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) November 19, 2015
This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, 2016). You can learn more about it here.
UPDATE: Interesting contention here that overuse of jargon is a feature of papers later retracted for fraud. The signal is subtle, and would not (I think) be of any use in identifying questionable papers; but the psychological implications are interesting. (HT Kieron Flanagan)
*Including abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms; just as one example, a single sentence from Osycka-Salut et al. 2014 includes cAMP, mL, BSA, sp-TALP, °C, min, and nM. Some of these are easy, some are hard, and none is pretty; but there’s nothing unusual about this paper.
**Most entertainingly in the Ten Hundred Common Words meme, kicked off by xkcd’s Upgoer Five and picked up, for example, by Dynamic Ecology in a challenge to describe one’s research using only the thousand most common English words. But when you read someone’s stab at this, it’s almost inevitable that the fun part is trying to figure out what they’re actually doing – and that’s revealing.
***Emulate perhaps being an example. I’ll leave it there as a way of pleading guilty to this unconscious tendency myself.
****Newton was an ass. He could afford to be, because everyone who mattered was going to struggle through the Principia anyway – but that was a brilliant book in an uncrowded literature. The costs of jargon are much higher today.