language


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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Great advice from Zadie Smith via Jonah Lehrer: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith is talking about writing novels and says that “the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

While those of us writing shorter pieces under some form of deadline can’t put pieces away for years – or days – we can still use a few tricks to create some distance from our own sentences so we can try to read them as if someone else wrote them. In brief, anything that keeps you from silently rereading the draft straight through from beginning to end will help overcome the tendency to think, “It made sense when I wrote it and it still makes sense.”

  • No matter how little time you have to write a draft, break the process down into steps: note taking, drafting, taking a break, editing. The longer the break, the better able you’ll be to come back to the draft with an editor’s eye.
  • Develop a personal editing checklist and edit for just one thing at a time. See this checklist on The Writing Wiki.
  • If you didn’t use an outline to write the draft, create an outline from what you wrote. This will help you see the structure instead of getting lost in the flow.
  • Read your draft aloud, have your computer read your it to you, or have someone else read it to you.
  • Read the paragraphs in random order to break up the flow. Examine each one for logic and sentencing.
  • Read the sentences in reverse order starting at the end of the draft.
  • If you write at a computer, print out a draft and read it on paper.

According to the Associated Press, Merriam-Webster recently decided 100 new words were worthy of inclusion in the latest edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Why so few?

Among the words are pescatarian (a fish-eating vegetarian), infinity pool (an outdoor pool with an edge disappearing into the horizon), dirty bomb, and netroots.

I love these particular words and some of the others cited in the article, but overall the collection seems arbitrary – why these and only these? The explanation included in the article (which I won’t quote since this is an AP story) relies on subjectivity, which is understandable but begs the question of whose experience and resulting subjectivity constitute sufficient authority.

Ah, the pros at Merriam-Webster.

Which brings up the role of dictionaries and to what extent we should be relying on them. If I want to use a common word that hasn’t yet made it into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a word such as, uh, conjobulated, am I wrong? Should English teachers redline such usage if my readers understand it?

Since dictionaries often disagree – will the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford American Dictionary include the same 100 words? – it’s important not to think of any one dictionary as the arbiter of the words you can use. (And of course there are those who think we shouldn’t be adding any new words or new uses of existing words, but I dismiss these folks as eccentric and unimaginative and relegate them to a parenthetical.)

A useful dictionary evolves over time to reflect how we actually use words – though long publishing cycles mean they live most of their lives out of date. And their real value is not in dictating what words we can use, but as a resource for understanding words we encounter but don’t recognize. That is, they can help us understand what we are reading or listening to, and they can help us build a larger working vocabulary.

Writers, however, need to focus on their readers and the words their readers use and understand. Think about it. What’s more important, being right according to some arbitrary standard or communicating effectively? Both you say? Then which dictionary (or grammar book or language watcher) do you believe?

Instead, be an aggressive reader and listener. If you demand that what you encounter makes sense, then you will refine your understanding of how words – old and new – are used, and you can refer to dictionaries as needed. For words not in your dictionary, search them out on the Internet and try sites like Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary and Urban Word of the Day

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that you use any word any way you want. Remember Humpty Dumpty. But feel free to enjoy the full richness of our constantly changing language, as long as you take your readers or listeners into account, so you are communicating clearly and effectively whatever your purpose may be.

One of the great things about English is the room for new words that do what no existing word can do: artsy, carjacking, detox, email, and so on. When I read Maggie Jackson’s comments about the erosion of attention on Marci Alboher’s blog, I knew it was time to introduce a neologism that I’d like to see quickly become standard English. Conjobulation is the state of having so many projects to do and so many errands to run and so many familial pressures to manage and so many interruptions to recover from that sober individuals can be sitting at a stoplight and suddenly have no idea where they are supposed to be going, that they can be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they are talking about, that they can wake in the middle of the night in a panic but have no idea which problem woke them up.

I’d certainly been conjobulated plenty of times, but was stuck with such mundane and limited descriptions as too busy, stressed, harried, swamped and overwhelmed. Words like inundated, drowning, and snowed under were stretches at best and did not have the right feel. Confounded, crazed, and bewildered are great words, but they don’t communicate the external nature of the pressure.

Then one day a couple of years ago, my wife was driving and discussing a number of “issues” and forgot where she was going. A native Spanish speaker who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, she blurted out that she was conjobulated, and I knew she’d hit upon the perfect word. We have used it successfully ever since – successful in that when one of us says we are conjobulated the other knows precisely what is meant. It certainly captures the erosion of attention and focus that plagues our lives today.

A search on Google has revealed that a couple of others have hit upon this word: here, here, and one I won’t link to, but they don’t seem to have recognized the value of their find. I have added conjobulation to my MS Word dictionary. I suggest you do the same, and I hope you’ll begin using it whenever you get the chance. I’m sure if you use it, even internationally, it will almost always be immediately understood. As soon as I submit this blog post, I’m going to submit conjobulated to the Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary. I hope that some of my favorite language bloggers, such as Dan Santow, John McIntyre, and Language Log, will weigh in on its merit. And any help you can provide – by using it in writing and blogging about it – is appreciated.

By encouraging the adoption of conjobulation, we may actually spur research into how to combat it.

I only hope I’m not too conjobulated to finish this project.

I’ve earned my livelihood primarily as a writer and writing instructor since 1979. Much has changed: styles, tools, vehicles, topics of interest, and who’s willing to pay for writing and how much. A lot hasn’t changed. “A lot” is still two words. We still fight over the serial comma. And the goal for most writing projects is still to deliver the most valuable information clearly in the fewest possible words.

The media continue to play the dominate role in the evolution of our language, enriching it by pulling street speech up into mainstream communication while training us to communicate carelessly and unclearly. Social media is having a significant impact both good and bad on our language and how we communicate, and it has also made the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly more important than ever.

These topics will keep me busy.