Positively Editorial

Don’t Assume Your Readers Know Your Jargon

I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know every word there is, especially when it comes to industry-specific jargon – or worse, industry-specific jargon that has different meanings in different industries. (“Feeder” is oddly popular, for example.) It’s not just me, of course. It’s impossible to know every word in the world; even dictionaries add new words each year.

If you’re writing a paper, business proposal, or any other piece of writing targeted to a certain group or industry, it can be incredibly tempting to use your industry’s jargon when you write. For the most part, that’s okay! That jargon exists to make it easier to communicate concepts common to the work you’re doing. It also conveys a feeling of being “in the know” and part of the club, which can be a nice psychological bonus when it comes to discussing work in front of civilians. But when you’re writing anything for business, you absolutely need to write as much as practical with a general audience in mind.

I know, I know. “The people reading it will know what it means.” But are you really, truly sure about that? What if it lands on the desk of a CEO who doesn’t want to admit they haven’t kept up with the latest tech? If you’re looking for funding from someone who doesn’t specialize in your field? If you’re trying to impress your date with your academic publications but he’s humanities and you’re engineering? If someone really does know all the jargon but is just blanking the day they’re reading your work because they’re really tired and don’t want to ask for clarification to understand one short sentence?

Give your readers a break and spell out what your jargon means the first time you use it. This goes triple for your abstract or introduction, since it’s the part most people are likely to read, and sometimes the only part. It costs you just a minute to add a parenthetical definition, and thereafter not only can you safely use the word all you like, you’ll have made things easier for your reader. You’re being welcoming, allowing them into the club and letting them feel comfortable. Best of all, they feel invited to read further, making it more likely you’ll get your message across and get that journal publication or funding for your department. When in doubt, spell it out.


Here are some examples of how to define jargon terms in your text.


“We will use five feeders to run power at Site 7.”

“We will use five electrical conductors (“feeders”) to run power from the main source to the distribution centers at Site 7.”


“The water levels varied over the season as different feeders were dammed or dredged.”

“The water levels varied over the season as different river tributaries, or “feeders,” were dammed or dredged.”


“The company was discovered to be a feeder organization during the investigation.”

“The company was discovered to be a feeder organization (a business turning profits over to a charity in an attempt to be classified as tax exempt) during the investigation.”


“The FEEDER program has been a wild success.”

“The Federal Excellence Exam of Dogs, Elephants, and Reindeer program (hereafter FEEDER) has been a wild success.”

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