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March 23, 2006
Beware of your vocabulary
Last night some associates and I were bemoaning the proliferation of obfuscation instigated by the intentional propagation of technical jargon in modern-day communication.
Or rather—to phrase it more clearly and accurately—we were complaining about the overuse of business doublespeak. I see this in two forms on the web.
Some writers choose to muddy their messages by peppering their sentences with big words. While these words may demonstrate the writer's vast vocabulary, they can often confuse the reader, particularly if these words are less accurate than their smaller, yet equally powerful counterparts. Another issue that concerns me is the appropriate use of specialized vocabulary. That is what I'll be discussing today.
What is specialized vocabulary?
When I refer to specialized vocabulary, I refer to the language of a particular field of study or skill set. For example, if you already have a certain skill set, or at least some of that skill's pertinent vocabulary, you will know the answer to the following question.
Assuming that you and I are in the same physical location, and I ask you to "loosen the cunningham and move your weight to leeward," where are we and why should you do this? Click on the photo or caption to learn the answer.
|In a factory||On a sailboat||At the gym|
If you weren't already familiar with those terms I might as well have asked you to "flugen mir zu the moon sur une giant magic fromagecake. Either way you won't know how to respond, because as far as you can tell, it's gibberish. But if you did know those terms then you succeeded in loosening the tension* on the forward edge of the mainsail and went to sit on the other side of the boat.
In the case of sailing, or almost any endeavor, your knowledge of the appropriate vocabulary is part of your expertise. A non-sailor can actively participate in a leisurely afternoon sail. The skipper can ask this person to pull on a certain colored line, point to a piece of equipment, and explain how to use it. But in bad weather or during a race, the time spent explaining things can jeopardize one's safety or one's position in the race—then a more experienced sailor is preferred.
Whether you are a theoretical physicist, a computer programmer, or an avid baseball fan, you have a specialized vocabulary—in fact you probably have many different specialized vocabularies. This vocabulary affects not only how you pursue your endeavor, but also how you communicate about it. If you are submitting a research paper to a peer-reviewed journal you will need to use this vocabulary to explain your results. If you are explaining your job to your five-year old daughter, that same vocabulary will produce confusion and frustration.
Match your vocabulary to your audience
What if you aren't writing to an audience of your peers? In that case a certain amount of translation is in order. Our faculty do this regularly in the classroom. When you have expertise in subject X, you share that knowledge in small digestible bites. Students aren't required to know all of the vocabulary before taking the course because that is part of what you are teaching them. Going back to the sailing example, I try to remember the time when I didn't know the difference between windward and leeward. I try to keep that memory fresh in my mind so that I can explain the concept in a manner that is easy to comprehend.
We can apply the same principle when writing for the Web. If I'm creating a Web site, I need to consider who my audience is, how much they already know, how much they want to know, and why they might need the information. For example if you were creating a site about fuel cells your audience could be made up of fellow fuel cell researchers, journalists, government agencies, students (of all ages), manufacturers, foundations, etc.
If one of your goals is to clear up public misinformation about fuel cells and the hydrogen economy, you will try to explain these matters using less technical jargon. You might also focus on more general issues—regarding fuel cells—so that you don't give them more information than they need. You might also supplement the text with illustrations that an interested lay person can understand. If you rely too heavily on your specialized vocabulary then the public will remain as confused as they were originally. This doesn't mean that you must "dumb it down" so that a three-year old will comprehend, only that you must make it clear to someone who is obviously interested in the topic—why else would they be at your Web site—but who will not have the same depth of knowledge as do you.
By matching your vocabulary, and writing style to your audience, you will leave them with a greater understanding of the topic and greater respect for your expertise.
* In case you are curious, you can learn more about properly trimming your cunningham at http://www.sailnet.com/collections/articles/index.cfm?articleid=ddcksn0318.
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