When Is a Morgue Not a Morgue?

What do the words morgue, birdie, assessment, green, and object have in common?

These words are jargon. Jargon is the set of terms used by people in a specific field, profession, or group. The definitions of the jargon may be unique to that field. Nearly every field has its own jargon. For example, the terms in the first sentence are used in journalism, golf, education, marketing, and editing, respectively.

Should you use jargon or not? Depends. Jargon can be useful or it can cause problems. To answer this question, you have to think about your reader.


When to use jargon

If you’re writing a technical document, article, guide, or manual to experienced members in your field, jargon will help you express complex ideas with a minimum of words. You don’t have to waste time explaining ideas because the jargon does that for you. Using jargon lets you get to the point you are trying to make.

If you don’t use jargon in this case, your reader will respond in one of two ways. The reader might be bored by all the explanations and full descriptions of concepts. The reader might think, “Ok, I already know all that. Get to the point!” On the other hand, the reader might be offended, thinking that you don’t trust him to know the jargon of his profession. In his or her mind, the reader may think, “Hey, I already know all that. I’m not stupid!”

The readers must be experienced members of the field, profession, etc. who use the jargon regularly. If they are not, they might not understand the jargon, and you won’t be able to communicate effectively.

When not to use jargon

Don’t use jargon when writing to people outside the field or who are inexperienced in the field. Instead, explain the concept. On the other hand, if you will discuss the same concept repeatedly, explain the jargon the first time you use it, and then use it as needed. For example, we defined jargon the first time we used it.

A reader encountering the jargon may respond in one of two ways. The reader may think the writer is showing off. This will create hostility between the reader and writer and will diminish your ability to gain reader trust. The reader may think, “Who is this show-off?” On the other hand, the reader may be interested in what you have to say, but without understanding the words, the reader will not grasp the full meaning of your ideas. The reader may think, “I don’t get it. What does this mean?” In short, you cannot communicate effectively if the readers don’t understand the words you are using.

Considerations and cautions

Oftentimes, a person in a particular profession will use jargon when writing to “outsiders.” I see this regularly from educators, lawyers, scientists, and academics. The problem is that a person who uses jargon regularly may not realize that the terms are, in fact, jargon. They are the everyday words he or she uses. I am assuming that the writer doesn’t realize that he is using jargon, which is preferable to assuming that the writer is intentionally trying to confuse the reader.

Finding jargon in your writing is harder than it sounds. You have to identify words specific to your profession or field. These are words that you use regularly, part of your everyday speech, but that the reader may not know. As you’re reading your document, you have to keep asking yourself, “Does the reader know this word?” If the answer is “probably,” or “most will,” then you probably should define the word the first time you use it—at the very least.

Your responsibilities as a writer

You have three responsibilities.
1. Create a reader profile. Another way to say this is “Know your reader.” Who is your reader, what does he know, and what knowledge does he have?
2. Analyze your content according to your audience analysis. If your reader will know the jargon, find places where jargon is needed. If your reader will not know the jargon, find places where you need to either define the term or replace it with the full explanation of the concept.
3. Revise the document according to the findings from step two.

As a writer, your goal is to communicate clearly and economically so that your reader will understand and respond. Using jargon wisely is necessary to communication.

The answer to “When is a morgue not a morgue?”

In common usage, a morgue is a temporary storage place for bodies. However, in journalism, morgue is jargon for a reference file or other storage for old newspaper clippings, stories, and other information resources.

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