Avoiding jargon and unnecessarily complex words

Jargon and unnecessarily complex words can make meaning unclear. However, avoiding jargon does not mean you need to ‘dumb down’ the content, or be less accurate or precise. Simple, clear writing can be difficult to achieve, but the following tips can help:

Avoid grandiose words

Some writers think that good writing requires formal, grandiose language. Simpler, everyday words are easier for everyone to understand:

it is important to utilise short words  =  it is important to use short words

other deleterious effects of corticosteroids  =  other harmful effects of corticosteroids

the committee performs a function analogous to   the committee has a similar function to

Using simple language is particularly important when you want to ensure that your audience understands your message:

Anthropogenic effects on the environment are resulting in a plethora of negative consequences.
Human activities are harming the environment in many ways.

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Replace technical and complex terms with familiar ones, where appropriate

Sometimes it is easy to forget that readers outside your field may not know terms that are familiar to you. Even experts find plain English easier to read.

The use of terminology that is specific to a particular field is acceptable in moderation, but replace complex terms with familiar, plain-English equivalents wherever possible:

early puerperium  =  immediately after childbirth

myocardial infarction  =  heart attack

your program needs to be backwards compatible  =  your program needs to be compatible with earlier versions of the software

the drug is known to be fungitoxic but not phytotoxic   the drug is known to be toxic to fungi but not to plants

Finding a simple, plain-English equivalent can take some thought. Make sure you do not change the meaning of the sentence or lose any subtleties that might have been conveyed by the original, more complex words. Do not be afraid of making the text a little longer – several simple words may be better than one difficult one.

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Avoid jargon and trendy words

Some words have become ‘trendy’, especially in government and technical reports, but that does not necessarily mean that readers understand them, especially if they are not common in everyday speech:

learnings  =  lessons

to action  =  to do, to follow up

to leverage  =  to use, to build on

to progress   to do

Use plain-English words and phrases to make your writing and meaning much clearer:

The organisation’s human resources budget will be rightsized after the implementation of our change management initiative.
The organisation will be cutting its training and development budget following the move to Albury.

Actionable learnings occurring as a result of the recommendations of the report will be leveraged to implement key deliverables going forward.
We will follow the report’s recommendations when developing future products.

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Use precise words and phrases

Some words can have several meanings. Although you may mean something very specific when you use a particular term, there is no guarantee that the reader will understand it in the same way. Use a word or words with a more precise meaning:

enhanced  =  improved   or   increased   or   reduced [Note that some things are better when bigger, such as immunisation rates, and some when smaller, such as air pollution or a golf score.]

inhibit   reduce   or   stop

parameter  =  constant, variable, value   or   upper and lower limits

See Terms to watch out for, for further examples of terms that are commonly confused or misused.

You also need to check that your word choices are not ambiguous or confusing in context. Some words, phrases or clauses can become ambiguous in their grammatical context:

Our new researcher likes visiting experts. [Do they like having experts visit, or visiting them?]

We need more enlightened commentators. [Do we just need more of them, or individuals who are more enlightened?]

We didn’t miss the bus because we biked to the bus stop. [We missed the bus, but it wasn’t as a result of biking to the bus stop …?  Or as a result of biking to the bus stop, we made it onto the bus …?]

Keep the pronoun close to the noun to which it refers to avoid pronoun ambiguity:

When Michael saw his father, he was overjoyed. [Who does he refer to: Michael or his father?]
Michael was overjoyed when he saw his father.

The recreation centre included a hockey field and an indoor facility with a basketball court. It was open until 5 pm. [What does it refer to: the recreation centre, the hockey field, the basketball court?]
The recreation centre, which was open until 5 pm, included a hockey field and an indoor facility with a basketball court.

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Avoid euphemisms

Some words and terms are used to try to hide potentially unpleasant realities. Using plain language will make the meaning clearer:

sacrifice  =  kill

correctional facility   prison

human waste  =  faeces

rightsizing  =  redundancies   or   job loss

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