blog post

De-Jargonification of Scientific Explications (AKA How to Say Stuff More Simply)

Scientific writing is notoriously full of jargon. Jargon includes technical terms that are specific to a certain discipline, or sometimes it can be everyday words that mean something different in science than they do in normal life. Jargon has its place — it can help scientists be very precise when communicating with each other. But sometimes it is more trouble than it’s worth, for both scientific and non-scientific audiences.

But what can we do about it?

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Beware of jargon! (image by Wonder woman0731)

CSN student Stephanie Mitchell, who recently attended the Science Outside the Lab policy workshop in Washington, D.C., brought back a few interesting tidbits about jargon:

  • “Jargon” was first used by Chaucer1 and is translated as “throat constrictions”
  • Jargon isn’t just big words — it’s big ideas in small words
  • We can think of the way people talk about what they know best as a work dialect, which includes work-specific jargon. It’s not that others don’t have the ability to learn this dialect, but it might not be the language they will understand best.

There area lot of great tools out there for writers who want to simplify their language. For example, the De-Jargonizer rated my first paragraph above as a 96/100 in suitability for a general audience, partly because 93% of the words are “common” while 0% are “rare.”

The creators of the De-Jargonizer have written an academic article about how they developed and validated it.2 Here are a few other useful and/or amusing resources to check out:

  • Randall Monroe of xkcd made a comic where he illustrated and explained the Saturn V rocket using only the one thousand most-common words in English — Up Goer 5. If you want to try it yourself, Theo Sanderson created The Up-Goer 5 Text Editor (my first paragraph above fails the test, using at least 17 words that aren’t on the list…)
  • Monroe’s book Thing Explainer does the same thing for about fifty different objects and concepts, ranging from “tiny bags of water you’re made of” (cells) to the “box that cleans food holders” (dishwasher).
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is more about communicating ideas in a memorable way, but reducing jargon definitely plays a role.
  • The Hemingway App helps writers simplify their work by highlighting complex sentences and “weaker” grammatical constructions like adverbs and passive voice.  (It rated my first paragraph at an 11th grade level because of how complex the second sentence is.)
  • Andrew David Thaler has a very helpful table of Terms with multiple meanings for scientists and the public on the Southern Fried Science blog (for example, “abstract” means something very different in scientific vs. non-scientific contexts)

What are your favorite de-jargonizing resources?


Note: Thanks to Arielle Mensch and Natalie Hudson-Smith for de-jargonizing suggestions!


REFERENCES

  1. Wikipedia (2017) English words first attested in Chaucer.
  2. Rakedzon T, Segev E, Chapnik N, Yosef R, Baram-Tsabari A (2017) Automatic jargon identifier for scientists engaging with the public and science communication educators. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0181742. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0181742