Gobbledygook, jargon, and plain language

October 19, 2012

Based on a writing tip I wrote recently for my work colleagues. The industry is oil and gas. And yes, I know that ‘bottom line’ qualifies for Buzzword Bingo ;-)


Bottom line:

  • Use plain language where possible so the reader doesn’t have to try to figure out what you mean.
  • Consider how you would explain the concept to your parents, children, grandparents, those who don’t work in the industry etc. – and then use that language in your writing. Plain, simple, and easily understood.
  • Every time someone has to stop and think while reading your document, the organisation incurs a cost – time, lost productivity, rework etc.
  • Every misinterpretation could put a life at risk.

Let’s look at some examples from some documents I’ve reviewed:

Phrase as written by the author My comments
‘Each sub-phase will be reviewed and assured prior to proceeding to the next sub-phase.’ What does ‘assured’ mean in this context? None of the dictionary meanings fit how it’s used in this sentence. Does it mean ‘confirmed’, ‘approved’ or something similar? If so, use one of those words so that the reader isn’t confused.
(By the way, the Macquarie Dictionary definitions for ‘assured’ are:

1. [adj] made sure; sure; certain.

2. [adj] bold; confident.

3. [noun] boldly presumptuous.

None of these really fits the sentence, though I suspect a variation of the first definition is the closest.)

‘could leverage synergies with’ This one would qualify as a BINGO! in Buzzword Bingo (see links below). Consider using plainer language, e.g. ‘take advantage of’, ‘cooperate with’, ‘combine with’, ‘joint opportunity’ etc.
‘to enable performance characterisation of the…’ More business jargon and another candidate for Buzzword Bingo. What does ‘performance characterisation’ mean? How would you explain this to your parents, for example?
‘does not contain a sufficiently large portion’ While the individual words are in plain language, ‘sufficiently’ and ‘large’ are relative terms. What does ‘sufficiently large’ mean in this context? Larger than what? How ‘sufficient’ does it have to be to be ‘sufficiently large’? Either be specific about the size of the portion (using a value and unit of measure) or reword.

For each example listed above, I had to stop and think, try to figure out (guess!) what the author meant, consult the dictionary, or do all these actions. Each hesitation was a distraction that took my focus away from my objective of reading and understanding the content. Each time I searched the dictionary or thesaurus and tried out alternative words in my head, my focus was off the document and onto something else. Instead of reading a paragraph and knowing straight away what it meant, I was distracted – and sometimes confused. Thus the time I took to read and understand the sentence, paragraph, entire document was compromised. And that’s just me. Multiply that lost time by the number of readers of your documents who don’t understand what you mean and thus have to try to figure it out and now there’s a much bigger issue than just a silly word or two.

Let’s say your document is read by 30 people, and each person ‘loses’ just 10 minutes on that one document trying to understand what you’re saying. That’s a business cost of 300 minutes (5 hours) to the organisation for ONE document—a cost that could have been prevented if you’d spent just an extra minute or two converting gobbledygook and business jargon into plainer language. Multiply that over the thousands of documents produced and read by thousands of employees and contractors per year and now you’re looking at a substantial cost to the organisation.

But potentially there’s an even bigger business cost than lost time, and that’s the cost of misinterpretation. Sure, for many documents misinterpretation of a single word or phrase doesn’t matter too much. But ours is an industry [oil and gas] where lives may be at risk if an instruction is misinterpreted, or if a specification uses an incorrect unit of measure (e.g. inches instead of centimetres, grams instead of milligrams) or doesn’t specify a measure (‘sufficiently large’), or if a comma is in the wrong place thus making a sentence ambiguous and open to misinterpretation.

Loss of life, law suits, government inquiries etc. are all potential costs of misinterpretation.

So, after you write a sentence/paragraph/section/document, read it through before finalising it to make sure that all the words/phrases you use will be understood by your target audience. If in doubt, think about how you’d explain it to someone outside the industry and use those words instead. Or get someone else to read it and alert you to anything they can’t understand or that they hesitate over.

See also:

And for fun:

[Links last checked October 2012]


  1. Our
    StyleWriter software will help you edited all of the examples shown here into plain English. You can download a free trial from http://www.editorsoftware.com and test your writing and other samples in the gas and oil industry.

    I’d like to hear from those working in this industry how useful they find StyleWriter as most current users are from government and the service industries.

  2. Hi Nick

    I already use StyleWriter — it’s a great program!


  3. Excellent. There’s nothing like actual examples to help people see what you’re talking about.

    One thing I might add for some organizations is the difficulty and cost of translating those jargony sentences. If the translator can’t figure it out, then that’s a direct cost as well.

  4. […] This Writing Tip focuses on ways you can tighten up your writing by removing words and rearranging words. The examples below are from some documents I’ve edited recently. Note that some of these examples swap a word for its plain language alternative (see Gobbledygook, Jargon, and Plain Language). […]

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