Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

A while back, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone after the meeting. I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those buzzwords I had heard often, but never used. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.” I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.” Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the Plain English movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak like bandwidth, net-net, leverage, value-added) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding, nor do I always need it. I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. But many of my business clients — even though their clients are businesspeople as well — are uncomfortable using that sort of language in marketing materials, even though they talk to clients that way in person.

I’m torn: Clearly some informal terms are inappropriate for formal business writing. (A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks — Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo. You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release.) But at times, I think “speaking the language,” whether jargon or not, is just fine. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.)

Isn’t Plain English all about writing in terms the audience understands?

What’s your take? Answer the poll to weigh in.

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Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves,
spits on its hands, and goes to work.
~ Carl Sandburg

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4 Comments

Filed under Writing With Style

4 responses to “Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

  1. thousandmonkeys

    I find myself using jargon either because I’m being lazy (lack of knowledge so instead of finding out, I use phrases I’ve seen before) or because I really think people will understand it better that way. In some situations we’re so used to jargon that if it’s translated to plain English it’s not immediately recognisable, so in a way it’s clearer and more efficient to use it. Doesn’t mean I like it though.

  2. Thanks, thousandmonkeys. I guess there’s the risk, too, that people use jargon without really knowing what it means, or it means different things to different people or companies. Hadn’t thought of that before…

  3. JJ

    When I hear jargon like ‘ping’ used this way, it just makes me shudder. I’m not sure why I have such an aversion to it — especially this particular word — maybe it’s because it WAS in fact a technical term (and I’m a techie), but then seemingly overnight, suddenly everyone in our company (technical or not) was throwing it around with this new casual meaning. Maybe it was a turf thing (“hey, that’s OUR word — do you even know what it really means?”), or maybe it just reminded me of yet another annoying case of how some management folks hear a term or buzzword and then feel the need to work it into every missive, regardless of whether they really understand what they’re saying or not. Or maybe it was just the sheer speed at which it seemed to spread into common usage… like a virus!

  4. I agree with you, JJ, that certain words seem to take off like wildfire! Soon, you feel you have to use them or risk sounding out of touch.

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