We love to condemn the use of jargon and buzzwords almost as much as we love overusing them. Most jargon and buzzword-bashing lists, however, don’t help readers distinguish among words they should probably avoid entirely, those they should currently avoid in a particular type of writing (tech writing, business writing), and those they can continue to use with care.

Jargon is the special and often necessary terminology of a particular profession or field. It’s usually a problem only when inconsiderate writers choose to unleash too much jargon at one time or use it on the wrong readers. Often, though, after a new term is developed for good reason (e.g. Web 2.0), both ongoing technology development and marketing cause an explosion in usage, and the term soon has too many meanings to be used without qualification.

What’s a buzzword? For some it’s just popular jargon. For others it’s a word, such as “seamless,” that becomes part of a popular industry message and is soon overexposed. For still others, it’s any overused word or phrase, such as “bottom line.” Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of buzzwords and note that it’s a mix of jargon, tired metaphors, clichés, and everyday words that had the misfortune to become popular. As with people, the popularity of a word can have a significant downside.

The following terms appeared on two recent lists, one on The Industry Standard (thanks Elaine) and one on Network World. I hope my categories will get you thinking—and get you to stop believing that as soon as you read one person’s list of jargon or buzzwords you suddenly have to stop using them. As always, your goal is to write clear sentences for a specific audience. Make sure your readers will understand the jargon you use, and start paying attention to the evolution of words to determine when they stop having a clear and specific meaning for your readers.

Still useful terms that need to be defined in context

  • Web 2.0
  • Web 3.0
  • SOA
  • blended threat

Otherwise useful terms that are no longer helpful in tech writing thanks to constant abuse (though companies often insist on using them)

  • seamless
  • paradigm shift
  • solution (except in the construction “this software is the solution to your problem”)
  • disruptive (except in the construction “your behavior is disruptive to company morale”)
  • unique, revolutionary (unless backed by convincing evidence)
  • easy to use (unless backed by convincing evidence)

Terms that never had a chance of being useful

  • prosumer
  • value add
  • solution-oriented (applies to most “oriented” constructions)
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