Jargon or Vocabulary? 3 ways to determine which one you’re using

The use of simple language is the bedrock of what we do in journalism. Introductory writing courses pound the idea of eliminating complex terminology, removing unknown acronyms and generally cutting anything that might be considered jargon.

This approach makes a lot of sense when it comes to general-interest, mass-media publications, in which a wide array of readers who might be unfamiliar with the verbiage of a particular field come together to understand a complex topic.

However, the media isn’t always so “mass” these days, which means writers are serving thinner slices of narrower target audiences with content on niche topics. To that end, what might be “jargon” to a broader group of readers is merely “vocabulary” to the people who are reading, watching or hearing it.

Here’s a fun example from one of my favorite movies, “Dazed and Confused:”

In less than 15 seconds, Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) proudly describes his beloved car, Melba Toast, to Clint (Nicky Katt) in a form of shared “gear head” language. Clint clearly isn’t impressed, but he’s also not confused.

(If you are confused, here’s a general translation of what he said. If you don’t care, skip past the bullets and pick up after them to get to my point):

So, how do you know if you’re relying on shared vocabulary or burying people in jargon? Here are some helpful hints:


When it comes to writing for your readers, you need to have a strong sense of who is out there and what they know or don’t know about your subject. This might require you to do some additional research about the people who are in your target audience before you start whipping around insider terminology. It might also require you to write various versions of the same piece for different groups of readers.

For example, in public relations, you might do some internal PR that explains some changes to the way in which your company’s factory will be dealing with the creation of certain product lines. If the readers are all coworkers who fully understand the ins and outs of the old process, some company-based shorthand and shared verbiage is probably fine. However, if you then have to put that information in a press release for general media outlets or shareholders who don’t have those same insights, you need to rework your writing to meet their needs.

In the blogging class, I find myself working with students who write about competitive swimming, sorority recruiting, offensive line play, k-pop and “mumble rap.” In each case, I am reading at a level well below what the expected audience will be, but I’m still expected to be able to help the writers reach those readers.

Thus, I often ask, “Is this a word/concept/process your readers would understand?” I then ask them other questions, like “At what level of swim do you learn this concept?” or “Is this a term that sororities use outside of UW-Oshkosh or even outside of Wisconsin?” After we poke at that idea for a little bit, it either stays or it gets a rewrite.

Not every reader will be able to follow everything you write, regardless of what that topic is or for whom you are writing, but knowing who you’re trying to reach can help you make the first cut on the jargon versus vocabulary decisions.



Probably my favorite story about this came when I was reading a draft of a final project story one of my reporting students was doing on the concept of raw milk. The student was a farm kid, who saw firsthand the various people who had angles on the topic, including farmers who wanted to sell it, organic fans who wanted to buy it, legislators who were for its legalization, legislators who were against its legalization, milk conglomerates who opposed, food-safety administrators who had concerns about its safety and more.

I’m reading through this thing and I’m learning a ton about this, as the writing was complex and yet clear. I had heard about this concept before, as the local newspaper had covered it, but not to this extent. With that in mind, I suggested to her that she should get it published, but that she should target one of the farm publications that dotted the newspaper racks around here.

When I mentioned those publications, she looked at me the way that a parent looks at a small child who just said something adorably innocent.

“Um…” she began. “This is a little… basic for people who read those papers…”

I still laugh thinking about that moment because it perfectly captures the concept of writing at the acumen level of the audience. For me, she had to make certain things a bit less (OK, a lot less…) complicated in how the farming stuff worked. She get more detailed with the legislative stuff, because it was more universally understood. However, she used the right words to make her point based on how educated her audience was on the given topic.

As mentioned in the earlier point, not every reader is going to be at the same level as every other reader in your audience, but understanding the level at which you should be writing will make life easier on everyone involved. For example, if you’re writing about something like car repair, you might be targeting people with Wooderson-level acumen or people who want to be able to solve a few basic problems to avoid going to the repair shop for everything.

So, if you’re writing about what to look at when it feels like the gas pedal isn’t working, you need to determine how much knowledge your audience has in advance. For the regular folks, you might say, “Open the hood of the car and look at the right side of the engine, next to the big plastic piece that says ‘NISSAN’ on it for a small half-circle of black plastic with a silver cable attached to it. Have a friend step on the gas pedal and see if this moves at all. Also see if the cable moves but it doesn’t rotate that half-circle.”

For a gearhead, you might  say, “Look to the right side of the engine block and find the throttle body. Rotate it to see if the engine responds. Check the throttle cable to see if it has become dislodged or detached.”

This kind of thing applies a lot for student media outlets because some things are universally understood by students from the first minute they hit campus while others might be common knowledge to seniors but new concepts to freshmen. (I once went to a summer camp at a university where I was the only person from outside of that state. The students kept saying “I’ll meet you at the duck,” so I went looking for a statue of a duck or a pond. Eventually, I found out it was the DUC, which stood for Dobbs University Center.)

Everything from what you call the transcript of your classes as you move toward graduation (the STAR report at UWO) to the nearby off-campus housing (the J-Slums at Mizzou) is up for grabs based on how well your readers know your topic.



Regardless of how much you know about your audience or how smart those folks are, you still want to create readable content. When you start tossing around a boatload of acronyms, abbreviations and inside lingo, you can really find yourself sounding less like a storyteller and more like this scene from “Good Morning, Vietnam:”


As with most things in writing, the discretion of the writer and the editor come into play here, but make smart decisions when it comes to which items get the shorthand and which ones get some additional explanation. For example, “mph” is pretty much understood university as “miles per hour” so that car blog would be fine using it regardless of any user. However that CFM abbreviation might need expansion for some audiences and almost no explanation for others. Either way, when you find yourself writing something like, “The CFM determines the MPH or KPH based on the RPMs, IMA, MJ, CAT and the presence of an HIC.” you want to do a significant rewrite.

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