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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.

factory1.jpg sail1.jpg gym1.jpg
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

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Posted by: Heidi Cool March 23, 2006 10:39 AM | Category: Tips and Tricks , Writing


Trackback URL for this entry is: Beware of your vocabulary



Good stuff. Sometimes we are surrounded by so many of our peers that it is hard to even recognize which words are jargon and which are not. There lies the challenge.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on March 23, 2006 11:36 AM


Excellent point. I think we sometimes are so familiar with something that we take it for granted that others should be too.

I think we also have to be careful with contextual usage. For example the term "conversion rate" will mean different things to different people. To a salesperson it means converting an inquiry into an actual sale. To a chemist it involves a chemical process.

Posted by Heidi Cool on March 23, 2006 12:17 PM


Many, many years ago, British humorist Spike Milligan wrote a book called The Art of Coarse Sailing (one is a series of books involving different pastimes) and said that a coarse sailor is someone who fancies himself a sailor but, when faced with a sailing crisis, forgets all nautical language and yells "For God's sake, turn left!"

This has little to do with your post. The word leeward just triggered this memory.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 23, 2006 05:05 PM


I think I've actually seen some examples of that—usually when multiple boats are competing for space in a tight channel.

Of course there is a far more important reason to remember the term. If someone starts turning green around the gills, he or she is usually told, "If you are going to be sick, make sure you do it to leeward." After vomiting into the wind and enduring the splashback, the lesson is not easily forgotten!

Posted by Heidi Cool on March 23, 2006 05:33 PM


Ah! ... The art of Course Sailing ... I'ed love to get hold of a copy. Any unwanted copies out there?

Posted by helena lynch on September 4, 2006 02:06 AM


"For God's sake, turn left!"
I think that happens every so often, you see the most experianced sailor deperate turning to normal language to make the non understanding passenger understand, it does not always have to be out of pure inexperiance.
Sorry, this blog went off topic here dident it?

Posted by Tom Stach on May 18, 2007 04:26 PM


After readin your post a second time I came to realize one thing, The languageyou use in the first sentence is not even understandeble to me being non english, but the easier explanation after it is and this made me think of your later example, someone building a website. The language used to build a website would be "universal", say HTML, meaning it would be the same no matter where the participants in the discussion come from, while in your other example about sailing, each language has its own vocabulary for diffent sailing terms. it might be very easy to shoot "loose the cunningham" but you might have an ever so experianced sailor onboard who is not english, he might acutally not get it as fast as he should. When you look at some teams who race Dragons (an international sail boat type) you find mixed crews sometimes, and after they have trained and raced togheter for a while you find them developing there very own language some times, it would not have much mening to others, but it fills a function, fast and effective, and this has to be the main point in any discussion. Use the right language no matter in what situation you are.
Thx for the time.

Posted by classicyachting on July 3, 2007 06:07 PM


Tom and Classicyachting make excellent points. When we speak, we typically try to use the language that will be most meaningful to our listeners. If that means saying "left" instead of "port" while sailing, or coming up with an agreed upon shared word for a team that speaks different languages, so be it.

We can do the same when we write for the Web. If word X is more exact, but word Y will be understood by a larger portion of your reading audience, then use Y. What comes to us naturally in conversation can, with some thought, also be applied to our writing.

This also serves to remind us that the first W in WWW stands for World. Many of our readers, such as the last commenter did not grow up speaking English. If we're writing in English but are trying to reach a global readership, it is especially important to keep things simple. This doesn't mean we must dumb it down, only that we should stick to core vocabulary, that which is more likely to be learned by foreign speakers, and avoid topically technical terminology.

Posted by Heidi Cool on July 3, 2007 07:50 PM


Excellent point of keeping the language or core vocabulary targeted to the majority as there are more people that don't speak the dominant language learning.

Perhaps I'm a little of target here but I'm assuming this site is related to web development and one of the most important aspects on any home webpage is the compelling and captivating heading to draw the reader into the copy.

Am I missing the point?

Anyway since learning how to implement good old method of compelling sales copy I've increased sales and lists on every one of my websites and can't complain.

My best to all.

Posted by Mark A Briody - Website Designer on August 30, 2008 12:16 PM


Pretty much what I wanted to read. In fact, specialized vocabulary building is important for students who wish to get into a particular field. There are some tips to build your vocabulary I would like to point you readers to:
Ten tips to build your vocabulary
Vocaboly, the vocabulary builder application

Posted by Lenin Nair on October 29, 2008 03:20 AM

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Posted by: hac4 (Heidi Cool) March 23, 2006 10:39 AM | Comments (10) | Trackback