First identify your jargon, then avoid it

Jargon has a use. We do certain things over and over in our lab that need shorthand names. The trick is to remember that these words mean something only inside the lab group. I’m sure you have some family words for things that you would never use outside the family. It is the same thing with the lab group.

But the lab jargon is not so easily identified as such, particularly by newcomers who do not have a larger experience of scientific communication. We will point out what is lab jargon when you use it outside the group. Maybe we should have a list of things that are lab jargon on our website. For us, mixing experiments would top the list, with clonalize a close second.

At another level, scientific jargon does not work for public communication. This may be harder to identify. I like to tell people to use words that only their grandfather or grandmother might know, but now that I could be that grandmother, maybe I should just say your friends outside of science. It is generally true that testing your writing and speaking on the intended audience is a good idea. After awhile you’ll get a feel for it.

Perhaps the best place for evolutionary biologists to turn for education on jargon is Carl Zimmer‘s great post on the topic. Here are a few of my favorites, put in categories. Useless words include literally, multiple (use many), novel, recently, seminal, and paradigm shift. Pompous words include facilitate, substrate, utilize (use use), in vivo, or in vitro. Technical words include some surprises: morphology, molecular systematics, orthogonal. But you should look at his list yourself.

Another way of using the list is to write horrible sentences for fun. Here’s mine. Recently, methodology for mitigating the insult to coastal marine environments utilized in vivo pathogenicity island parameters orthogonal to a seminal paradigm shift.

Carl also has a great post on why words and the sentences they populate matter. Your science is complicated enough. Make the way you describe it simple and clear. Use short sentences. Fill in the transitions. Tell a story.



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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