Clearly defined terms and active language are fundamental to good writing. If readers don’t understand the vocabulary you employ in your narrative, the potential for frustration and misunderstanding on their part raises exponentially. The point is obvious, but surprisingly hard to put into practice (much academic writing proves the point). We converse with our friends and loved ones on a day-to-day basis assuming they will understand our vocabularies the same way we do, and it’s easy to assume when writing that our reading audiences will readily understand our arguments and “be on our level,” so to speak.
As a historian I must always be cognizant of terms and phrases that could potentially distort my arguments: what does it mean for a person, place, or thing to be either “modern” or “traditional”? What is “culture”? What is “identity”? What does it mean to “learn”? Do my readers understand these terms the way I do? Likewise, I must also strive to use a clear, active tone that places actions in the subject of my sentences. As this guide from the University of North Carolina suggests, an active sentence asks “why did the chicken cross the road?,” whereas a passive sentence might ask, “why was the road crossed by the chicken?” I am as guilty as anyone of using imprecise terms and passive language in my writing, and I constantly strive to do better with each blog post, essay, and article I write.
Buzzwords and passive, jargon-laden phrases should be avoided in writing. All writers, regardless of topic, rely on words and phrases with specific meanings to convey their ideas, but many words necessarily change over time. “Liberal” and “conservative” political philosophies, for example, represented a set of ideas in 1775 that meant something different in 1850, 1900, and 1990. Anyone writing on these eras must use precise definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” to clarify their arguments. I believe buzzwords and jargon phrases can do much to distort good writing. A word becomes a buzzword when its use becomes so ubiquitous and wide-ranging as to become completely devoid of any clear meaning. A phrase becomes jargon when its use is restricted to a small, exclusive group of people while confusing readers on the outside. Both are bad!
Below you will find a list of ten buzzwords and jargon phrases that I avoid in my own writing, although I’ve been guilty of using some of these terms in the past without fully thinking about their meaning.
1. General Public/Average Person: Whenever I hear the term “general public” I envision unthinking humans whose brains are empty vessels waiting to be filled by all-knowing scholars and expert practitioners. What is “general” about this public? What is “average,” and who is an “average person”? How does our definition of “average” highlight our own biases and prejudices? In the quest to write for a general public or an average person, who might be left out of the conversation? Wouldn’t it be better to write for a “non-academic” audience or simply “the public”? Countless writing guides suggest that writers “simplify” or “dumb-down” their writing for the general public/average person, but I think it’s far better to write clearly for the sake of acknowledging the intelligence of your readers, who–regardless of intelligence level or education background–don’t need to be inundated with deliberately obstructionist language.
2. “The Ways in Which”: 99.9% of the time this jargon phrase is completely unnecessary and easily replaced with either “how” or “the ways.”
“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines the ways in which Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”
“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines how Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”
3. Foment: When you foment, you “instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent sentiment or course of action).” This word could be an appropriate verb for describing many historical actions, but for some reason I have only seen it within the context of slave rebellions. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner “fomented” rebellion against white slaveholders, but the thirteen colonies never fomented rebellion against the colonies, laborers never fomented rebellions against their employers during the Gilded Age, and Civil Rights activists were never seen as fomenting civil unrest in the 1960s. Why is it that only slaves are charged with fomenting anything? Far better, it seems, to use words like “instigate,” “encourage,” “incite,” “provoke,” and “urge.”
4. Discourse: One of the worst examples of academic jargon in existence. Most folks participate in “conversation,” “discussion,” or “debate.” Academics participate in “discourse.” The former terms represent action verbs, whereas “discourse” represents a boring, passive noun. Changing a verb to a noun is never good.
5. Jettison: Most folks “throw,” “drop,” or “remove” things. Academics “jettison” things. Another jargon term worth avoiding.
6. Engagement/Civic Engagement: Countless education programs, centers, and non-profit organizations win financial grants and private donations because they state in their mission statements that they promote “engagement” or “civic engagement.” But what do these terms mean, especially the latter? As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, these terms represent a million different things to millions of people, but I suspect no one really knows what it means to participate in engagement or civic engagement.
7. Impact: Much writing—regardless of topic—attempts to explain correlations and causations between people, places, and things. In describing these relationships, writers discuss “impact.” But again, what does it mean for something to have an “impact”? Even more problematic, “impact” as a verb refers to hitting something or a collision, which is not the same as describing the effect of one thing upon another. As this brief essay points out as an example, “Impact means collision . . . Laws don’t impact people. Laws affect people.”
8. “Lifelong Learning”: Lord, what in the world does this phrase mean? What is the University of Missouri-St. Louis trying do with this “Lifelong Learning” program? Isn’t the goal of any self-respecting education institution to help sharpen their students’ critical faculties and develop a lifelong passion for learning and discovery? Have you ever heard of an education program whose mission statement says, “Yada-Yada University: committed to promoting a 23-year passion for learning!”?
9. Disruption/Disruptive Innovation: There is a lot talk these days about “disruptive innovation” as a form of radical change in business and education. But the term is a buzzword, used so often and in so many contexts as to render it completely meaningless. As Matthew Yglesias argues, the term is now “a lame catchphrase.”
10. Postmodern: The ultimate academic buzzword, used to describe any cultural, social, philosophical, economic, literary, or political thought since World War II. Wikipedia can only say that postmodernism is “a departure from modernism” (whatever ‘modernism’ means!). Here’s what Dick Hebdige had to say about “postmodern” in his book Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things:
When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age . . . a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ . . . the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university . . . then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.
Have any buzzwords or jargon phrases to add? Feel free to leave a comment below!