Jargon Is No Bargain
Almost a century ago, in 1916, the British author, editor, and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) published On the Art of Writing. The book’s fifth chapter is titled “Interlude: On Jargon.” Quiller-Couch abhorred jargon, a catchall term for pompous, bloated, clumsy, hackneyed, or impenetrable writing.
Quiller-Couch, who wrote under the pen name “Q,” extols “the active verb and the concrete noun.” He deplores “dissolving vivid particulars into smooth generalities.” If writers say what they mean in a strong, clear, direct voice, they can avoid the jargon trap. “Jargon is by no means accurate, its method being to walk circumspectly around its target; and its faith, that having done so it has either hit the bull’s-eye or at least achieved something equivalent, and safer.”
Jargon is not necessarily long-winded. Q offers this sentence from a popular novel: “I was entirely indifferent as to the results of the game, caring nothing at all as to whether I had losses or gains.”
It’s just twenty-three words, but for Q that’s fifteen too many. First step: “Cut out the first ‘as’ in ‘as to,’ and the second ‘as to’ altogether.” Second step: change “had losses or gains” to “won or lost.” Third step: “if you care not at all whether you win or lose, you must be entirely indifferent to the results of the game. So why not say ‘I was careless if I won or lost,’ and have done with it?”
Q disdains words and phrases such as case, instance, nature, condition, persuasion, degree, as regards, with regard to, in respect of, in connection with. “They are all dodges of Jargon, circumlocutions for evading this or that simple statement: and I say that it is not enough to avoid them nine times out of ten, or nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred. You should never use them.”
Jargon diminishes us not just as writers but as human beings: “If your language be Jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will dodge: the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent.”
The comic highlight of the chapter finds Q rewriting Hamlet’s classic soliloquy. Here are Shakespeare’s first five lines:
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
Here is Q’s jargon version:
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion.
“That is Jargon,” says Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “and to write Jargon is to be perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton-wool of abstract terms.”
Here are some examples of jargon. Can you improve these sentences?
1. As regards the suspect, he was apprehended by a resident of an adjacent dwelling unit.
2. Upon receipt of this memo dated July 26, please be herewith informed that our new parking policy will be effectuated immediately.
3. In my case, I became instantly immersed in an ineffable atmosphere infused with elation.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. As regards the suspect, he was apprehended by a resident of an adjacent dwelling unit. (A neighbor caught the suspect.)
2. Upon receipt of this memo dated July 26, please be herewith informed that our new parking policy will be effectuated immediately. (Our new parking policy takes effect on July 26.)
3. In my case, I became instantly immersed in an ineffable atmosphere infused with elation. (Suddenly I felt happy beyond words.)
Posted on Monday, July 14, 2014, at 10:50 am