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Jargon–To Use or Not to Use?

Jargon is a constant issue for writers: to use it or not to use it. I recently did NOT use it when I should have. Here is what happened:

I sent invoices to two clients and included this statement: “Payment is due within 20 days, or a 1 percent interest penalty will apply.” Although both clients had agreed to this payment arrangement, in both cases I had not received payment after 25+ days. When I followed up, I learned that the Accounts Payable departments, whose job it was to pay the invoices on time, had not even noticed my statement. One let me know the problem:

If you expect payment within 20 days, write “Net 20.” That is what we understand.

To me, “Net 20” is jargon. To Accounts Payable, it’s the thing that gets their attention. My solution: use “Net 20” if I want to get paid within 20 days.

Here is another situation, but the writer opted for jargon:

Reading my email the other day, I noticed the title of the lead article in an e-newsletter, WebProNews: “Is SEO Rocket Science or a Colonoscopy?”  The writer had my attention with that odd question. To read on happily, all I needed to know was this: What is SEO?

I read the entire article. I still do not know what SEO is or what the piece was about. The author did not offer even a hint of a definition. He did say that SEO is neither rocket science nor a colonoscopy, so he answered his question, but there was nothing else there for me.

For that writer, an easy solution would be to define SEO just once. Readers like me would learn something. And readers who know the term already would not be offended by a brief definition or spelling out of the abbreviation, would they?

It all comes down to our readers. If we want our readers to see value in our articles or pay our invoices, we need to use language they recognize.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Jargon–To Use or Not to Use?”

  • Mike, thanks for your 2 cents. I continue to think “Net 20” is jargon, which may be the same as “relevant language targeted to an audience.” I like your remark that it is a widely recognized term, though. “How widely recognized?” is a question we have to continually ask ourselves as writers.


  • Hi Lynn,

    You probably know by now that SEO is “search engine optimisation”.

    To WebProNews, 99% of the audience are fairly familiar with the subject of SEO, so it really wouldn’t occur to them to define it for new readers.

    I guess a good way to work around this in industry specific publications is include near the top or in a sidebar a link: “Need some clarification on the jargon we use? Click here for a glossary of terms”.

    Interesting one on the Net20, didn’t think about that myself – and made the same mistake as you! 🙂


  • Alastair, the funny thing is that I myself am familiar with search engine optimization. But when I saw SEO, it just didn’t click–so to speak.

    I like your practical idea of a linked glossary.

    Thanks for writing.


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