The Last Word: A Micro Study of Some Macro Jargon

Volume 27 No. 2

The Last Word Editor: Marie Antoinette Moore, Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C., 909 Poydras Street, Suite 2800, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 299-2100

Last fall, our Editor received an e-mail flyer for a telephone continuing legal education program entitled “Legal Writing at the Macro Level.” He scratched his head—is this for computer scientists or economists? Reading further, he learned that this presenter would “focus on important communicative elements within a document at the largest structural and organizational level” so that the listener could improve his or her documents “at the macro level.” Our Editor asked himself, “Are the ‘important communicative elements’ words, sentences, paragraphs, or something else?” He concluded, “How can I expect this fellow to improve my writing if I can’t even understand his description of the presentation?”

Our Editor was right for two reasons—both the fault of the program description. First, the word “macro” has no meaning except among computer scientists or when joined with other words to create a term with specific meaning in a specialized area, as in “macroeconomics.” See Webster’s II New College Dictionary 655 (1995) (“macro,” used alone, is a noun meaning instructions in a computer language—no other meanings are listed). Second, the phrase, “important communicative elements within a document at the largest structural and organizational level,” sounds official and technical but is so vague that a reader is not told the concrete aspects of a document that the presenter will address.

Vague technical-sounding terms and official-sounding convoluted phrasing are considered “jargon,” and those who tell us how to write generally denounce jargon because it confuses the reader and impedes communication. W. H. Fowler defines “jargon” as “talk that is considered both ugly-sounding and hard to understand.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage 315 (2d ed. 1995). I doubt that even the quoted CLE presenter would urge his listeners to use jargon.

Of course, it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to use technical terms as a shorthand way of communicating ideas to those in a specialized field—terms with well-understood meanings in that field. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 476 (2d ed. 1995). A lawyer’s use of words particular to a certain area of practice can be a useful and economical way of presenting complex ideas to those also practicing in that area. Id. For example, “co-tenancy” is a term used in retail leasing that refers to a tenant’s requirement that the shopping center contain a certain number of other open and operating tenants, and “co-tenancy provisions” define the number and types of tenants that must be open and include the tenant’s remedies if the other tenants in the center close. It’s a handy term for this somewhat complex set of lease provisions. But neither the leasing meaning nor the hyphen used in the leasing term are recognized in Black’s Law Dictionary or dictionaries of general use. See Black’s Law Dictionary (7th ed. 1999); Webster’s II New College Dictionary (1995). For retail leasing professionals, “co-tenancy” is a term of art, but everyone else will consider this term meaningless jargon.

Our presenter probably intended “macro” to convey the idea of overall document organization in a sexy and sophisticated way. But “macro” typically doesn’t sound sexy to people, including lawyers—and lawyers are the presenter’s intended audience.

The reader then confronts the phrase, “important communicative elements within a document at the largest structural and organizational level” and doesn’t understand it. This sounds like it is written by someone with authority or specialized knowledge, but what does it mean? It is “circumlocution rather than short straight speech” and “uses vague woolly abstract nouns rather than concrete ones.” Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage 487–88 (3d ed. 2009) (quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing (2d ed. 1943)).

The presenter’s description is jargon—it sounds authoritative, but it doesn’t identify what exactly will be covered by the presentation or make most readers want to listen to it. What it does do is impel readers to e-mail this description to their friends with a note on the irony of using such impenetrable language to describe a program on good writing.

So how do we recognize the kind of jargon that we should avoid? If we use a phrase that is not natural to us, but that we use to make ourselves sound superior or more knowledgeable, then it’s probably meaningless jargon to our audience. If we use phrases that we would not use in a face-to-face conversation with the intended reader, then the reader will probably consider the phrase jargon. A writer should examine technical or fancy phrases to be sure that they have a well-understood specific meaning for the intended reader. Writers also should avoid fuzzy phrases like “in relation to,” manufactured words like those that end in “ize,” and any phrase that would be at home in the Code of Federal Regulations.

After all, “[t]he intended audience . . . is the primary consideration in deciding which words will be most immediately intelligible.” Id. at 488. We do not write to impress our readers—we write to communicate with them. If our readers aren’t able to understand our documents on the micro, sentence-by-sentence level, then they probably won’t read far enough to get the message on the “structural and organizational” one.

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