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The perils of language traps

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Posted Nov. 26, 2018

If you struggle to produce effective writing, it may be because you’re falling into some subtle language traps.

On the surface, language traps refer to words or phrases whose meaning isn’t clear to readers and, worse, can potentially mislead them into thinking you mean something you don’t.

This is particularly true of jargon. For example, in one of our classes working with engineers, one student used the term “gundecking” in an email. Because it was a group of engineers with naval experience, the writer assumed they’d be familiar with the term. Instead, it left everyone confused. Worse, no one asked for clarification at first. Several students hesitated to ask what it meant because they thought they should know what it meant. Others assumed it meant something that it didn’t.

This kind of situation happens frequently. One study of linguistic habits found that people ask for clarification on confusing statements once every 90 seconds. Writing, however, is different. Your reader probably isn’t there to be able to ask you for clarification. Instead, when you use confusing language, you’ll simply leave the reader grasping at whatever you’re trying to say. Even if they do manage to get the gist of your meaning, the confusing term can distract from the rest of the document.

How can you avoid the perils of language traps?

The bottom-line solution is to choose your language carefully and with the reader in mind. Make sure everything you say will make sense to the people you’re addressing and, when in doubt, choose simpler, more universal language. In fact, unless you know for certain that your readers will know the specific language you’re using, write like you’re writing to a layperson. Some other tips:

  • Write plainly. Favor simple and clear language over fancy wording. Sometimes we’re so eager to sound clever, we opt for colorful wordplay that just muddies our meaning or we use words or phrases that others in our organization use, even when those terms may be overused (“it is important” to note is an example). This is also how we fall into the trap of using overused clichés. Just state your meaning simply.
  • Be specific. Imprecise wording is more likely to cause confusion than is specificity, especially if you’re using some kind of shorthand or code you think your readers might know. Specificity makes meaning clearer and writing more impactful.
  • Avoid jargon. The truth is, writers should mostly avoid jargon altogether. You never know who’s going to read your writing (or when; will the use of jargon decrease the longevity of the document?), and therefore you should strive to make it as widely accessible as possible.
  • Define what you mean. If all else fails, and you think it’s still important to use a potentially unclear term or phrase, simply define it. This applies to acronyms, too, which should always be spelled out upon the first usage.

The perils of language traps

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(503 Reviews)