Every editor has to deal with jargon, because every form of writing has jargon designed to speak to the author’s audience. The question that editors need to resolve is this: Should I delete jargon? Today’s guest essayist, Erin Brenner, tackles the question by asking four questions about the jargon and its use.
Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.
Before Deleting Jargon, Ask These Four Questions
by Erin Brenner
Copyeditors are trained to spot jargon. We’re taught to see it as obscuring meaning, as something designed to keep readers out, so delete it we must. Yet jargon can be helpful as well. For those familiar with it, jargon can provide a concise way to say something.
Instead of automatically deleting jargon, we should be considering whether it’s helpful to the reader.
How do you do that? Let me show you.
Ask Four Simple Questions
While editing the newsletter recently, I came across three jargon terms in an article about email discussion lists by Katharine O’Moore-Klopf: listmate, onlist, and offlist. I’ve been participating in such discussion lists for a long time, so I didn’t even blink at the terms.
But one of my copyeditors, Andy Johnson, did. Given that the article is aimed at folks who don’t currently participate in discussion lists or boards, would those readers understand the terms?
Johnson knows that jargon must be helpful to readers or be removed—just like every other word in a manuscript. To determine whether the terms are helpful, I apply a list of questions I wrote for deciding whether to use a neologism in a manuscript:
- Does the word in question mean what the author intends it to mean?
- Does the word fit the style and tone of the text?
- Will any connotations of the word inhibit the author’s intended message?
- Will the audience understand what the author means by this word?
In this situation, O’Moore-Klopf was using the terms correctly. They fit well within the piece, and there were no connotations of the terms to inhibit meaning. The problem was whether the audience would understand the terms. The article was targeting readers who don’t currently participate in discussion lists, remember.
We could determine whether there would be readers who wouldn’t understand the jargon by determining how well known the jargon was outside of discussion lists. I started my search for these words:
- In several dictionaries. No results.
- In the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Zip.
- On Google. Now I had a few results:
a. listmate: There is some list management software called ListMate that grabs most of the first few results pages; about four pages in, I found one result that was in the subject line of a Yahoo Group message.
b. onlist: Results included social media handles and program commands. They also included some descriptions of activity on a list (as opposed to off it).
c. offlist: This term had the best results. It appears in Wiktionary, a Minecraft forum, and discussion comments. It’s also as a tag on Instagram and Pinterest.
By this point, I had a fair idea that these terms weren’t used much, if at all, outside of discussion lists. Still, I checked one more place, Google Books, and came up with a few accurate results. Most were books about discussion lists or marketing; one was on relationships in the digital world. Another was a book about language usage in a specific culture, while another was a fiction book set in the modern day.
Given that the terms were not often found in the mainstream, I hesitated to use them. Listmate seemed self-explanatory once the idea of discussion list had been introduced. Onlist and offlist were less clear; although our readers are intelligent and could parse out the meaning, we’d be making them work for it. Could we say the same thing without those terms?
We could. In most places where onlist was on its own, we could just drop it; the context was clear already:
If you have a funny work-related anecdote that you can share [deleted: onlist] without violating anyone’s privacy or embarrassing anyone, do so.
Offlist didn’t appear on its own, but when paired with onlist, we rewrote the phrasing:
Avoid complaining, either on the list or in private e-mail conversations [was: onlist or offlist], about colleagues, listmates, and clients.
In addition to the places I noted above, consider checking industry publications similar to yours and a news database, such as Google News. The first will tell you if the jargon is common in your industry, and the second will tell you if the jargon has become familiar to a wider audience. If the jargon appears in either place, you can feel comfortable keeping it in your manuscript.
Copyeditors don’t have to spend a great deal of time trying to determine how mainstream a piece of jargon is. It took me about 10 minutes or so to research all three terms in a light way and decide that the issue my copyeditor had raised was valid. I saw enough evidence for me to advise the author and seek her preferences.
Do you have “rules” that you apply to determine whether jargon should be deleted? Are they the same as Erin’s four questions or something different? Some professional editors work in niche subject areas, for example, medical books written by doctors for doctors or computer programming books written by programmers for advanced-level programmers. Are the rules about jargon and the questions to be asked about jargon outlined by Erin applicable?
Perhaps most important: Does eliminating jargon really matter in today’s Internet and Twitter age?
What do you think?