Down with jargon!

I thought of a fun exercise we can all contribute to. It’s partly inspired by this article (see the section entitled “Inoculating against jargonitis” by Helen Sword), and partly by the multitudes of papers I read and review that are chock-full of indecipherable terms and phrases (often strings of nouns, interestingly) that I have to pause and consider for way too long before I can extract any meaning from them. Jargon bogs down our ability to communicate and instantly loses the attention of the people we are (usually) most trying to get our message across to (see Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words that he uses in his science writing classes here, and Ed Yong’s perspective on scientific jargon). Of course, technical terms do have their place in explaining complex techniques to specialized audiences (see a careful analysis of scientific jargon here). The vast majority of the time, jargon is unnecessary and unwanted.

img_1337I realized when I sat down to write this, that a comprehensive list of commonly used terms and phrases that make me cringe and then go straight to Google didn’t come to mind immediately. So, let’s make that list.

Let’s raise our jargon-spotting awareness. Just thinking about which terms and phrases might be meaningless to others (anyone from our closest colleagues to laypeople who rarely think about science) is a good mental exercise. We may learn to think twice about these overly-technical words next time we are about to use them. And we can have a good laugh at the same time…

So don’t be shy; add your favorite jargon terms or phrases along with a translation in plain English to the comments section, and I’ll add them to the table below. Let’s see how many we can deconstruct!

Jargon term or phrase Plain English
significant statistically meaningful
error term variability
natural enemy parasite or predator
negative feedback inhibitory process
positive feedback self-reinforcing process
bottom-up regulation food availability controls herbivore numbers
top-down regulation predators control prey numbers
primary insect plant-killing insect
secondary insect insect that kills stressed plants
susceptible edible
anthropogenic human-caused
utilize use
employ use
demographic rate death and birth rates
normality whether numbers fit a bell-shaped curve
in situ actual location
positive correlation two variables increase together
in vitro in a test tube or culture dish
in vivo in a living organism
assay investigative procedure

More on jargon:

This is a humorous translation of some technical phrases commonly used in science and their most probable actual meaning.

-Another good list of scientific jargon plus some translations.

Update (November 8, 2016): A peripherally-related article reports that biologists are starting to write in a less formal style, and this could be good for building a better connection with readers.

Update April 21, 2017: New study on how science is becoming less readable over time


4 thoughts on “Down with jargon!

  1. Karl Altman September 13, 2016 / 1:54 pm

    Are there more common words for positive feedback might be encouragement or praise. I find it hard to detect what’s jargon unless the listener has trouble with it


    • scienceshapeslives September 16, 2016 / 4:35 pm

      Good point. I added “encouraging” to the plain English translation.


  2. Sandra June 1, 2018 / 3:39 pm

    This was a fun read! It was one of my favorites of your posts. Also, Dyrk Shingman’s list, LOL! I have preferred used to utilized or employed for a long time. I always change it when I edit papers, but those edits are usually ignored. I guess others seem to like it? In vivo (in a living organism), in vitro (in a test tube or culture dish), and assay (investigative procedure) could also be added to the list.


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