Is jargon hurting your ability to communicate clearly?

Basic Training, 1983

Most people don’t know that I started my professional life as a soldier in the United States Army. For a military person, abbreviations, acronyms, and nomenclatures are part of everyday life. In other words, we spoke the language of jargon.

Now jargon can be useful in that it’s a shortcut for those with insider knowledge of the terminology. The downside to this is that outsiders often can’t understand what’s being communicated.

Here’s an example of typical Army English. See how much you understand.

I was a SP4 71L in FAS, HQ V Corps Artillery. Our unit was part of HQ V Corps, which was part of USAREUR. USAREUR was, and still is, under the command of the SACEUR. His office is at SHAPE HQ, which is the strategic command of NATO. All service members were required to pass a PT test every 6 months, qualify with M16s, as well as a number of other CTs. When I was off-duty, I would head up to the MRW office at Frankfurt MILCOM to see if anything fun was going on. If I didn’t see anything interesting there, I’d go to the PX, which is run by AAFES. If nothing else, I’d go home and watch AFN. When my tour was up, I didn’t want to PCS so I put in for an extension so I could stay in-country.

Got that?[1] (See below for “translation”.)

You might think my example was extreme, but it wasn’t. You’d hear this kind of language all day, every day. In fact, the military is so rife with jargon that they’ve created a Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. It’s 370 pages long. This is an improvement on the previous edition, which was nearly 700 pages.

That said, the military is no different from any other industry. If you’ve ever sat in on an IT team meeting or had someone try to explain blockchain to you, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

It’s all about culture

We often hear companies talk about their corporate culture. But what does that mean? What is this thing we call culture?

Anthropologists tell us that a culture is defined as the language, religion, food, customs, and art adopted by a group of people.

So, how does this apply to the business world? 

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition defines culture as group behaviour that, in turn, helps us form a group identity. This means your company’s dress code, lunch in the canteen with colleagues, even the annual Christmas party all work to form group identity – and group identity is central to any kind of team building within an organisation.

So, what does this have to do with jargon?

The first and strongest point in any culture is language. It is deeply connected with our identity – both as an individual and within the group. In fact, one of jargon’s most important roles is defining who is in and who’s out of a group. It can be used to protect information or it can be used to promote status. According to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, using jargon increases a sense of self-importance within a group and helps “keep other ideas from entering the inner circle.”

Whether it’s done consciously or unconsciously, using jargon is a way to keep others at a distance. And this can have huge effects on your organisation’s ability to communicate with your intended audience.

Acronyms, abbreviations, and nomenclatures

Let’s quickly look at each of these.

An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of other words.

  • NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
  • UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation

An abbreviation is the shortening of a word: Mr. (Mister), Mrs. (Misses), St. (street), etc.

Do not confuse an abbreviation with a contraction. A contraction is where two words are shortened into one: do not becomes don’t. The apostrophe replaces the missing letters.

Nomenclature is defined as creating a system for names and categories. Scientists use nomenclatures to classify things. The military uses it extensively to name equipment. For example, the nomenclature for an Abrams battle tank is M1A2. Businesses also use nomenclature. Anyone who has ever had to buy ink or toner for their printers will have to look for the nomenclature (model number) for their particular device for the cartridge to fit correctly.

(Note: There are differences between British English and American English when it comes to punctuating abbreviations. Then there are those weird little Latin abbreviations. To help you with all of the above – plus more – I’ve created a free guide on how to use them correctly when writing. Click here to download.)

These all add up to jargon. If the person you are communicating with doesn’t speak your particular “brand” of jargon, it can cause confusion.

Avoiding confusion

Acronyms and abbreviations can mean different things to different people. For example, I got an email last week where the sender wrote, “From my POV, the answer is simple.” I had to stop and think for a moment because, in my world, a POV is a privately owned vehicle. Of course, she meant point of view.  The whole email read: “From my POV the answer is simple. PM me by COB today and we can set up vid mtg to discuss.”?[2]  I was able to figure it out, but not everyone would understand this email.

To avoid confusion, simply write out the words, particularly for an international audience.

If you do need to use acronyms, be sure to write out the entire name or title the first time followed the acronym in paratheses, even if you think the acronym is well known within your industry. For example, when you write NAST are you talking about the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, The National Academy of Science and Technology, or the North American Society of Toxinology? Be clear.

The North American Society of Toxinology (NAST) was founded in 2012. The meeting that inspired their founding was held in Omaha, Nebraska.

Notice I didn’t use the abbreviation for Nebraska; I spelled it out. Whether you do this depends on your organisational style guide and/or your audience. For an American audience, it would be perfectly acceptable to write Omaha, NE; however, an international audience might not know that abbreviation.

If you have a lot of abbreviations and acronyms, create a list at the beginning of your document. If you are speaking with anyone outside of your inner circle, avoid using jargon altogether.  When you do so, you aren’t building yourself up; you’re building a wall. Speak clearly and build a bridge instead.

Click here to download my free guide on how to correctly use acronyms, abbreviations, and nomenclature in written text. 

Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a Business English teacher, public historian, and activist.  If you have questions or comments, feel free to contact her online or at

Marshallsay English – Because words matter

[1] OK, this time in real English. I was an Administrative Specialist at the rank of Specialist 4 in the Field Artillery Section, Headquarters, V Corps Artillery. We were part of the US Army Europe, which was under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. His office was, and still is, at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, which is the strategic command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. All soldiers were required to pass a physical training test every 6 months, qualify with our rifles, as well as a number of common tasks every soldier should know. When I was off-duty, I would head up to Frankfurt Military Community Headquarters to the Morale, Recreation and Welfare Office to see if anything fun was going, or I’d head to the Post Exchange, which is a military shopping center run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. If nothing else, I’d go home and watch the Armed Forces (television) Network. When my two years were finished in Germany, I didn’t want a permanent change of station (a move), so I put in a request to extend my tour of duty so I could stay in Germany.

[2] From my point of view, the answer is simple. Personal message me by close of business today and we can set up a video meeting to discuss it.


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