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Cleaning Out the Jargon

If you’re writing for industry, you can find yourself using specialized terms which generally mean something only to people familiar with that industry. These words and phrases are called jargon.

If jargon terms usefully describe a particular concept (kerning as the distance between typeset characters, for example, or TK as a placeholder meaning “to come”), they can and should be used. The problem is when turns of phrase which don’t really describe anything, or which describe something incorrectly, become so overused that they impede comprehension. That’s the wrong kind of jargon. ROI meaning return on investment is useful. Impactive is trying to be a new word which replaces the existing powerful without adding any new information or making anything clearer.

(By way of counterexample, and to show I’m not just Old Man Yelling at Cloud, the development of the noun friend into a verb meaning “accepted a link with someone on a social media platform” is jargon, but it describes a specific new action, so it works. The existing verb to befriend means something else.)

I joke that I take out my Jargon Hammer and play whack-a-mole with this kind of language, but it’s more accurate to say that you need a scalpel to remove it. (Or occasionally a chainsaw.) Many of these jargon terms are nouns which have been press-ganged into hard labor as verbs. Let us free them from their grammatical shackles.

Clearing jargon out of your writing makes it smoother and easier to read. Your goal should be maximum comprehension by the maximum number of readers. Twisting words to force them to mean something other than their definitions, or abusing grammar, places obstacles between you and your audience. Business writing can be hard enough to understand without the boulders of incent and ladder up to strewn in the way.

Herewith is a list of items you should work to remove from your writing whenever possible, and some common jargon-related mistakes:

architected

Architect is a noun, not a verb. Use designed instead, whether you’re talking about plans, buildings, or programming.

breathe life into XXX, bring XXX to life

If you are not a deity making people out of clay, you are not breathing life into anything. If your name is not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley or Victor Frankenstein, you cannot bring something to life. You can revitalize a project, and you can illuminate, highlight, or demonstrate something exciting. But other than the odd scientific breakthrough, only a biological pregnancy can bring life.

evolve

This is not a transitive verb and does not take an object. You cannot evolve something (for example, you can’t evolve a campaign). The thing does the evolving (a campaign, an organism, attitudes).

grow

Living things grow, as do fire and some intangible concepts like problems and ideas. You can grow food or your hair. What you cannot do is grow something not living: you cannot grow your business or grow your bottom line. Use expand, increase, or build.

impact

The only time it’s acceptable to use this word as a verb is if you’re talking about meteorites slamming into the ground and impacting the earth. Otherwise, impact is a noun. The rule didn’t impact their actions; it affected them.

impactful, impactive        

These are not real words. No, really, they’re not. They also sound dreadful. Don’t use them. Try powerful or effective, or reword as having an impact.

in the XXX space

Unless XXX is Hilbert or Euclidean or something similiarly mathematical, make it into an adjective. So rather than “creating buzz in the B-to-B space,” just say “creating B-to-B buzz.”

incent

A ridiculous back-formation from “incentive.” Use encourage.

incentivize

A bit trickier. If you give someone an incentive, it’s a reason to do something, but incentivize has a whiff of monetary exchange about it. So use encourage if you’re only discussing giving a person an intangible reason, but incentivize if the recipient is receiving money or some kind of reward.

  • She was encouraged to apply for the job.
  • An offer of T-shirts and coupons incentivized people to take the survey.

ingest

Fine if you’re talking about people or animals eating. Not applicable to programs and data. IBM’s AI Watson does not ingest information. The information is entered into the database.

ladder up to

Ladder is not a verb. You do not ladder up to the next level. You can aim for it, build up to it, reach it, or achieve it, depending on context.

onboard, onboarding

Also not a verb, and certainly not a transitive one. The concept here is orienting: when you bring on a new hire, you orient the person to your company, and the process is called orientation.

socialize                        

To socialize means “to civilize, to teach proper social behavior.” It does not mean “to share with the group.” If you came up with an idea which you need to let the whole team know about, you’d say “I shared my idea with the team” or “I circulated my idea.”

tasked with

Another perfectly good noun made into an ugly verb. Use asked to, given the task of, or even charged with.

trial

The fifth verbed noun in a row! You don’t trial a new program. You try it or do a trial of it. The real word is shorter and much clearer than the jargon term.

watch-out(s)

This one is plain silly. Use red flag(s).