Plain English or avoiding jargon

Jargon, especially that which has grown out of computer usage, may enrich our language. But using “debug,” and “flame” may not be acceptable in formal writing, so you must understand how to recognize it and when it is unacceptable.

Issues range from:

  • redundancy: “red in colour”, "and also"
  • overly formal wordiness: using “at this point in time” rather than “currently”
  • specialised technical slang: using “aeroplane rule” to describe the concept that greater complexity increases the likelihood of failure

When it takes the form of redundancy and wordiness, simple editing is critical. When jargon becomes specialised slang, we must consider audience and context to decide on how much is appropriate. A group of web designers might know that “angry fruit salad” refers to visual design that includes too many colours, but a general audience would not. Your writing should include the technical words that are associated with your subject and it must read as if it has been written by an educated person. Nevertheless, if your readers need to use a dictionary frequently, then they are likely to stop reading.

Always use the following plain English principles when writing:

  • Always choose the simpler wording or word (for example, “today” rather than “in today’s modern society”; “sandy” rather than “arenaceous”).
  • When you feel jargon is necessary, explicitly define the terms you use, or define terms by creating context for them in the sentence.
  • Use technical slang in moderation, in presentations, in conversation with peers, in interviews, in emails and memos, and in cover letters, but only when your audience is certain to understand your meaning.
  • Remember this is a serious piece of academic writing, so use good English and don't introduce humorous anecdotes.

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SMILE Technical writing by Marion Kelt, GCU, Vince Ricci, CIEE, Joe Schall, PennState University and Glynis Perkin, Loughborough University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International LicenseDetails on our credits page.