An American Editor

November 11, 2013

Four Questions & Jargon

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:

  1. In several dictionaries. No results.
  2. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Zip.
  3. 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?


  1. Of the various questions asked, I can respond to this one: “Does eliminating jargon really matter in today’s Internet and Twitter age?”

    What matters is pausing to make assessment, as Erin describes. Not everyone is Internet savvy or active on Twitter and Facebook. If those people are likely to be part of a work’s audience, then jargon indeed becomes an item to pause and assess.

    Much of the fiction I work on is written by authors decades younger than me, and they take certain modernities for granted, never entertaining the idea that “everyone” isn’t in the same groove. So, depending on likely audience, I often have to challenge their terminology. It goes the other way, too: Some writers of historical fiction assume that “everyone” recognizes historical figures or events and so provide no explanatory information, leaving readers scratching their heads.

    The manuscript currently on my desk is written by a Canadian, and keeps referring to “the bush” in the way that I use “the country.” I’ve only heard “bush” used to describe Australian and Alaskan deep, harsh wilderness. I queried the use because the lead character, who grew up in “the bush,” was not acting like someone raised in the wilderness. Author will probably tell me that it’s jargon (idiom?) in her region. Meanwhile, I’m frustrated because I don’t know what she’s talking about and can’t discern whether the character is acting appropriately for her background.

    Regardless, evaluating jargon as an editorial task has value. Sometimes jargon doesn’t need to be changed. After all, you can’t spoon feed everything to everybody . . . there’s nothing wrong with forcing a reader to learn something new by either inferring from context or looking something up. But: People write with the intention of being read, so we want to make it easy for readers to stay with the writing. That means clarity and accessibility. If jargon gets in the way of that, then it needs to go.


    Comment by Carolyn — November 11, 2013 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  2. You can also define jargon at the first instance and then use it thereafter, as you do with acronyms in running text. This can be useful if an understanding of a subject requires some familiarity with terms of art. For example, in a discussion of typesetting, you might define kerning so that you can use it thereafter; paraphrasing it would be clumsy. On the other hand, in the cases presented in this item, Erin makes the right call: onlist, offlist, etc., are easy to delete and the revision is much clearer.


    Comment by Mededitor — November 11, 2013 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  3. When I was editing medical books, the publishers followed AMA style, which forces one to translate jargon. For example, for “left heart failure” you had to substitute “left-sided heart failure,” as humans have only one heart.

    However, I suspect that when physicians are communicating with each other, they use “left heart failure,” so when they read “left-sided heart failure” they mentally convert that to the commonly used “left heart failure” or with some conditions a common acronym.

    So by being so fussy, were we just increasing the mental workload of reading medical books? We translate jargon into standard English and the medical student then translates standard English into common jargon.

    In this case, it wasn’t the editor’s choice; it was publisher style, so we didn’t have to come up with rules on our own.


    Comment by Gretchen — November 11, 2013 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  4. All businesses have their jargon where a term is a paragraph to whe writer but to readers the term gets in the way of understanding what the writer means. It is not just in books but shows up in advertsing, brochures and, even, conversations.

    There is only ONE RULE when it comes to selling . . . selling an idea, information, services, skills, as well as product and services. The Rule is, “What is presented must be logical to the first time reader/listener at their lever of understanding.”

    Because I have to adhere to this definiton which in sin my book, “Elements of Selling,” where I use common terms in different ways, at the beginning of each Element(chapter)I have included a glossary of terms (terms from previous Elements are carried forward and any new term is added the the glossary.)

    I decided to do this when one editor, in correcting my manuscript, changed the way some terms were used to the more common usage. So, I figured, if this editor did not understand what I was saying, readers would not.

    The result of using the glossary tactit has been that people who have bought my book (India, Finland, Serbia, as well in the US and UK), have told me that it helped them take a different approach to how selling fits into their business and personal activities — the reason for my writing the book.


    Comment by Alan J. Zell — November 11, 2013 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  5. As Richard mentions, some of us are editing in niche areas, so the use of jargon in these niches is the root cause of translation issues. For example, I edit technical content for an international audience, so writers follow this guideline: Avoid jargon, colloquialisms, or idioms. Instead, I recommend rewriting the sentence to use clearer, more direct language.

    Because of our target audience, our guidelines also mention that writers should avoid using a word as a part of speech that is different from its standard dictionary definition. In particular, we should not use verbs as nouns or adjectives; examples are “configure”, “compile”, “fix”, and “install”. Conversely, we do not use nouns as verbs; examples are “action” and “solution”. The same form of some words can legitimately function as different parts of speech. We recommend that if writers are in doubt about which part of speech a word can be used as, they should consult a dictionary.

    In short, we guide writers to use the simplest term possible to convey the intended meaning. For example, use “large” instead of “voluminous”, and use “small” instead of “diminutive”.

    In some cases, we treat jargon in the same way as acronyms; we define the term in the first instance it appears. Alternatively, we create a custom glossary where readers can look up the meaning exactly as we intended it.


    Comment by Anna Biunno — November 12, 2013 @ 10:31 am | Reply

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