amastyleinsider

September 15, 2011

Jarring Jargon

Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, describes jargon as “meaningless, unintelligible speech,” which is how some people might describe their last conversation with their physician. In science and medicine, many barriers to clear communication exist, with jargon being one of them. In fact, it’s so difficult for physicians and patients to communicate clearly that a federal program has been created to promote simplified health-related language nationwide. The Health Literacy Action Plan is a “national action plan to improve health literacy.” The entire action plan is 73 pages (which is probably their first mistake) and it highlights the fact that we have a problem.

As editors, we know that jargon is to be avoided in medical literature. While jargon may evolve for the most innocuous of reasons, it is a vocabulary specific to a profession that sometimes is esoteric or pretentious and that can be confusing to those not familiar with it (sometimes to those familiar with it as well). “Inside talk” can be just that by design—it keeps outsiders out. Therein lies the source of the negative feelings about jargon.

In addition to being exclusive, some jargon is offensive and unprofessional. Have you ever seen an FLK? Probably. That’d be a funny-looking kid. “We bagged her in the ER” sounds ominous; what it means is that a patient was given ventilatory assistance with a bag-valve-mask prior to intubation in the emergency department. Hopefully the emergency department physician didn’t describe the patient as a GOMER. This means “get out of my emergency room” and could refer to, for instance, an elderly patient who is demented or unconscious and near death and who perhaps should die peacefully rather than occupy emergency department resources. In this example, jargon diminishes the complexity of a situation that should be dealt with in a more thoughtful way. As Bernstein writes, “All the words that describe the kinds of specialized language that fall within this classification [of inside talk] have connotations that range from faintly to strongly disparaging.”

Jargon also sometimes violates rules of grammar, eg, turning nouns into verbs, “The doctor scoped the patient,” or creating back-formations, like “The patient’s extremities were cyanosed,” instead of “The patient’s extremities showed signs of cyanosis.” Jargon can sometimes appear to depersonalize, by defining a person in terms of a disease. A “bypassed patient” may be one who has undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery rather than one who has been overlooked. Sometimes, patients might be referred to by their organs, such as “the lung in room 502” instead of “the patient in room 502 with lung disease.”

The AMA Manual of Style lists examples of jargon to avoid in section 11.4, Jargon. Some other examples that we’ve collected over the years are listed here:

* Collodion baby is better phrased as collodion baby phenotype or “the infant had a collodion membrane at birth.”

* Surgeons perform operations or surgical procedures, not surgeries.

* Rather than say a patient has a complaint, describe the patient’s primary concern.

* Do not use shorthand (eg, exam for examination, preemie for premature infant, prepped for prepared).

* Euphemisms sometimes are not clear and should be avoided: “The patient died” is preferred to “The patient succumbed or expired”; the same holds true for killed vs sacrificed (in discussion of animal subjects).

* Patients aren’t “put on” medication, they’re treated with medication. Also, patients aren’t “placed on” ventilators, they’re given ventilatory assistance.

Certainly jargon does have its place. It is specialized, and those in the same field can use it to communicate precisely and quickly. However, when it comes to medical and scientific publications, jargon is best avoided. Bernstein ends his entry on “inside talk” with the following: “It must never be forgotten that the function of writing is communication.” Clear enough.—Lauren Fischer

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