Jargon: The Art of Naming Things

22 May 2011 // science

I like jargon but jargon, like anything else, can be used for good, or for evil. Whilst there are plenty of writing guides that rail against the use of jargon, such advice would make us miss out on the richness that carefully minted technical terms add to the language. Our language would be poorer without words such as entropy or DNA or tectonic plates.

Still, an eternally recurring complaint is that academic articles are unreadable because they are riddled with jargon, prose-killing, soul-sucking jargon. But is jargon the real problem? Perhaps it's merely the sloppy use of jargon. I don't believe that all science writers out there are deliberately using jargon to obfuscate their thoughts. It's just that no-one's really framed a way for them to use jargon effectively. I can't ever recall any reading guides that explain how to do so.

It's taken me years to figure out the connection, but after attending dozens of writing groups (oh you better believe it) and analyzing hundreds of short stories, I think I've found a useful way to think of jargon — you should treat a piece of jargon like how you treat names of characters in the writing of a short story.

Most writers make the mistake of thinking that jargon is meant to be space saver. It's not. The job of a piece of jargon, a technical term, is to bind a cluster of ideas. The secret to a useful, and even great, piece of jargon is not by a clever use of an acronym to shorten the word count, but by a careful process of introducing the term vividly, and using it in a strategic way throughout the article. Once the idea is imprinted onto the mind of the reader, only then might you use the jargon to shave the word count (which is typically not the best way to shorten an article). When your reader enthusiastically conveys your brilliant idea to another person, they will have no choice but to use the term that you just created.

Here, I'll list some of the lessons concerning names and characters that I've learnt from short story writing:

  1. The ideal number of significant characters in a short story is two. Stories are driven by conflict, and conflict requires at least two characters. Stories with one character run the risk of having no conflict where nothing actually happens. Unless you are a master of economical character descriptions, squeezing more than 3 will leave a short story stuffed and broken.

  2. Maintain the distinction between primary and secondary characters. Or more precisely, don't give secondary characters names. Trying to keep track of names is hard. Think about when you go to a party and have to meet lots of new people (oh yet another accountant named John). It's also the normal reaction of a reader to treat named characters as important. If you need to move the action along, don't give secondary characters names. You can creatively refer to them as "the transient douchebag" or "the slimy doctor".

  3. Introduce characters carefully. Pacing is something that eludes some writers. You have to give time for a reader to catch up to your richly imagined inner world. A good storyteller introduces characters, one or two at a time. When introducing a character, give solid concrete details for the reader to hang on. Very few people remember names that are said only once. It's a very good idea to repeat the name of your character several times in order for the name to stick.

  4. Names of different characters must be distinct, unless there is an incredibly compelling reason for it.

  5. The number of times that a character pops in the story is an indicator of the importance of the character to the story. The main character is often the one who appears the most.

Let me go through then how these guidelines can can help you make better use of jargon in a scientific article.

  1. Too many terms on the dance floor

Most people can't contain the excitement of inventing new terms. They jizz every time they add another shiny acronym to their article. What they don't realize is that with every new acronym, it puts one more block on the cognitive load of the reader, thereby making it harder to read. This is on top of trying to follow the logic in the ideas that you're describing. As well, the more new terms you try to cram in, the harder it will be to create a compelling narrative (the story form will be described in a later post).

If we want an article to be compelling, it helps to respect the restrictions that constrain short stories: stick to one or two main character. Your best chance to make a vivid impression in a science article is to focus on one or two new terms, and play them off each other for a neat resolution at the end.

  1. Sometimes you don't need to acronymize

Now of course, scientific articles are complex, where you will probably discuss diverse and complicated ideas, concepts and procedures. But here's the rub, you don't always have to coin a term, or dress an acronym, for every single idea that you discuss.

I'm sure you've read that paper. A new acronym pops up in every third sentence in the introduction. Some of them are only used once. Some terms are acronymized for no apparent reason, such as T.S.A. (That Stupid Acronym). And worse, once defined, the only other time it appears is three pages later, where the reader has forgotten the definition, and it looks exactly like gibberish. Either the reader skips over it or they are forced to scan backwards looking for the definition of TSA. Readers hate you every time you make them go backwards in reading.

However, this problem can easily be solved. If it is not the main idea you want to convey, you should treat these ideas like secondary characters in a short story, where you don't give them a name. Resist the urge to acronymize, or to coin new terms. If you refer to something only twice in a paper, just spell out the whole thing out, in all its pollysyllabic multi-word glory. The complete name should explain what it is, and the reader won't have to run backwards to figure out what is going on, thereby ruinously breaking the reading flow.

  1. Give each term its due

Another mistake some writers make is that they introduce too many terms at once. This is doing a great disservice to the ideas they are trying to communicate. In a short story, it's hard enough to follow one character, but following several characters at once is very confusing.

One particular egregious style of writing that mix too many terms are those quasi-theoretical articles that try to mimic the aesthetics of a math treatise by starting off with a bang of axioms. This is the worst kind of writing because it introduces a whole bunch of terms (axioms) at once. This is kind of like the introductions you get when you turn up late to a birthday party, and your host introduces you everyone else who has already turned up. Good luck remembering anybody's name. If you want to actually meet people, it's much better to turn up early to talk to each person one-on-one.

If you want readers to remember a character, you must introduce them well. You must hang vivid attributes to them – a visceral drive, some physical quirk, a hilarious affectation. The better you can embody the character, the better the reader will remember who that character is and consequently be able to follow them later in the story.

And so it is with technical terms. Too many papers just define a new term and move onto the next thing straight away. This leaves little impression on a reader's mind. Instead, every time you introduce a new term, or acronym, you should immediately describe all the salient features about it. What does it do when it goes to zero? What are the average expected values? Limits? It is important to contrast and compare. The more you can describe the new term, the stronger the impression for the reader, and the easier it will be them remember what it is when encountering the term later in the article.

As well, it helps to repeat the name several times after you introduce it. Not only will it help the reader memorize it, but it shows all the different ways that you can use the term. It's like how sometimes, you have to meet someone 2 or 3 times before you remember their name. There's no shame in plugging the name or acronym you just coined. Repetition helps in readability and gives breathing room for ideas.

  1. Making distinct distinctions

Names have a poetry to them, even in science. Unfortunately, people sometimes get lazy and pick the first acronym they can think of. Or else they think of a cute name that has nothing to do with the thing they are describing. A memorable name relates to the thing in question with some kind of poetic twist. Choosing such a name is great if you can do it, but not disastrous if you don't.

However, there are some simple things that always makes a name better – how about choosing one that is pronounceable? Stick some vowels in there, and hew to common english sounds. There are also common prefixes suffixes you can use, roman and greek ones are fine. Also I think verbs are often underused. It's so easy in English to use verbs as proper nouns. They make a new technical terms so punchy.

One common concern in short story writing is that different characters have distinct names. It's part of the art of giving names that different things sound, well, different. You can't afford to have names that can be easily mistaken for each other, especially in a short story where you want to establish the story arc reasonably quickly.

This highlights a problem I see in a lot of papers where a bunch of new terms or acronyms are defined that are all minor variations of each other. Whilst I understand that MMPBSA is different to MMPBSB if you are intimately familiar with these things, on a first reading, the difference becomes virtually invisible, and prone to misreading. It's up to you to find a naming convention that makes differences stick out more. Maybe MMPBS-CONST, versus MMPBS-VAR might be better.

  1. The weight of words

The final point is one of compositional balance. A reader takes many subliminal cues from an article and one of them is simply how often a term appears. If you want your paper to move inexorably to your main point by focusing on your most important term, you must simply make sure that the term occurs the most in the paper. Other terms have to be diminished in order for the main term to appear.

This means that you should ignore that piece of writing advice that you must have variety in your vocabulary and stick with the same name every time. It functions as a name after all, and you can use that name as a name every where the name should be used appropriately, which is every time you want to nail that name into the brain of your reader.