Write It Sideways

How to Use (not abuse) Jargon, Slang and Idioms

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Editor’s Note: For a chance to win a copy of my eBook, The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing, drop by author Jody Hedlund’s blog and leave a comment on her latest post, 5 Ways to Reduce the Working-Mom Whine Syndrome

I started my writing life as a business writer, compelled to try to improve the tortured, often incomprehensible language I found in operating manuals, annual reports, memoranda, and other formats that some bad writers tried to pass off as business “communication”. There seems to be a great misconception that passive voice, undefined acronyms and abbreviations, and loads of jargon make for good business writing.

Not true. All writers—whether writing for business, science, or academia, or those writing fiction and creative nonfiction—should strive for clarity.

But does that mean jargon, slang, and idioms are always taboo? Not if you do your job to make them serve your writing, rather confuse or bore your readers.

Jargon

jargon (noun) — specialized technical terminology characteristic of a particular subject; a characteristic language of a particular group.

To use jargon effectively, you must know your audience. Almost all industries use jargon to some extent, and that’s OK, because most practitioners of a particular profession have a basic understanding of the material and its associated jargon. Business and sports writers are notorious jargon users, as those in medicine and education.

For most writers, the goal is clarity. Unless you have a specific reason to use jargon, it’s best to avoid it. If you must include jargon, be sure to define it or make it understandable within the context of your story.

Bad writing is often the result of too much jargon. While jargon can be helpful when communicating within a specific group, too much jargon, or jargon that is not clearly defined can lead to muddy, confusing writing. If you find yourself having to reread a sentence over and over again, it is often because it contains confusing jargon.

Well-placed jargon in a piece of fiction can lend the voice of authority or the face of authenticity to a particular character. If one of your characters is a pompous Wall Street trader, using some insider jargon will help readers hear his voice on your page. Genre fiction, such as crime fiction, often relies heavily on the use of jargon. Here again, know your audience.

One way to help define jargon in your writing is to spell out acronyms or abbreviations the first time you use them:

Fuzzy: SCBWI announced on June 19 both the winner and runner up of the Don Freeman Memorial Grant-in-Aid.

Better: On June 19, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) announced this year’s recipients of the Don Freeman Memorial Grants for picture book illustrators.

See if you can translate the following jargon into language that could be understood by a general audience (note, I did not make these up). You may need your search engine to help you. How many clicks around the Internet did it take you to understand the original jargon?

Slang

slang (noun) — A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.

Slang is the language of the moment. It’s especially common among young people and, therefore, a vital component in writing young adult (YA) literature or writing authentically in the voice of a teen. In a recent issue of TriQuarterly Online, Natalie Haney Tilghman explains: “Slang is a language of exclusion and makes the world of adolescence inaccessible to outsiders, including adults.”

But using slang effectively is tricky. First, by its very nature, slang is short-lived. Words or phrases that sound fresh today may be as moldy as week-old bread by the time your book leaves the presses.

If you do use slang, you have to define it in context and use it frequently enough in your text for it to seem a natural part of the telling of your story. It should sound right coming out of the mouths of your characters. This requires consistency and a good ear. If you’re going to use real slang from a particular community—the hip hop culture, for example—you better get it right or you will lose credibility with your readers.

One way to avoid misusing slang is to make up your own. It’s not that hard; teenagers do it all the time. Mix in a few evergreens like “cool” or “hot” that most readers will immediately recognize as slang, and your imaginary slang will take on a life of its own. Again, consistency and context are key. Who knows, your made-up slang may become the real slang of tomorrow.

Idioms

idiom (noun) — a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. “on pins and needles”, meaning to be worried about something).

Idioms (or colloquialisms) are those turns of phrases that mean something entirely different than the actual words would indicate. Idiom is often synonymous with cliché (a saying or expression that has been so overused that it has become boring and unoriginal), but not all idioms are clichés. Used wisely in fiction or creative nonfiction, a well-chosen idiom can add color and flavor to your writing.

Since many idioms are regional they can be an efficient way of setting a character in a particular time or place. Speech from the American South is often riddled with colorful idioms, and English literature abounds with brilliant uses of idioms:

Jargon, slang, and idioms are often the culprits on unimaginative and confusing text. But in the hands of good writers, they are just three more tools in your writing toolbox.

Just for Fun

If you’re in need of a few good laughs (or want to feel really good about your own writing), check out the winners of the 2011 Golden Bull Awards from the Plain English Campaign. If any of the examples sound like good writing to you, return to the top of this post and start taking good notes.