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“Coning Down” for the Rest of Us

I received an excellent question from Geoff, which contains a good reminder for all of us. He wrote:

“In clinical medicine, a physician reading an X-ray may ask the radiographer to ‘cone down’ on a suspicious area, meaning that he/she would like another film that provides a more focused and detailed image of the area of concern. (The term derives from the use of an inverted cone-shaped device that narrows the beam in an old-fashioned X-ray machine.)

“Among clinicians the term is also used more colloquially to mean the same thing as ‘hone in’ [or ‘home in’], for example, ‘We need to cone down on the over-utilization question if we want to solve the cost problem.’

“Is this term [‘cone down’] now used much outside of the world of doctor-speak? Is it intuitive enough to be useful in general conversation?

The answer is no. “Cone down” is not intuitive. Those of us outside the world of medicine have no idea what the phrase means.

Before reading Geoff’s clear explanation, I would have thought of eating an ice cream cone. Or I might have thought he intended “tone down” but had made a typing error.

I congratulate Geoff for asking the question. All of us should ask, “Can _____________ [fill in your jargon] be understood in general business communication?”

Jargon is efficient language. But jargon used outside the realm of the experts who understand is inefficient and incomprehensible. No amount of coning down will help others understand it.

Thanks, Geoff!

Syntax Training

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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.

3 comments on ““Coning Down” for the Rest of Us”

  • Lynn,

    To further make your point–I actually wondered if there was a typo in your subject line when I got the alert for this.

    I could have known that wasn’t the case!


  • Lynn:

    Not only does industry-specific jargon leave people outside that industry flummoxed (confused), but it’s also the chief reason most businesspeople write without any marks of distinction.

    Our writing cannot stand out or be distinct when we continually parrot industry jargon and common phrases such as…

    Paradigm shift
    Core competencies
    At the end of the day
    Fundamentally opposed to
    Cost prohibitive

    How refreshing it would be to hear a businessperson say something is “too expensive” instead of “cost prohibitive.”

    To your point, simple conversational language will take a businessperson much further than convoluted and mostly useless jargon.

  • Jean, I appreciate your observation.

    Mike, thanks for your examples of vague phrases. They are prime offenders in business writing.

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