Is Using Business Jargon a Good Idea?

Originally published 2/11/09 on EmploymentCrossroads.

Too much jargon!Businesspeople sure love to make up new words.

There is nothing wrong with new words, as long as they (1) fulfill a need, (2) don’t replace a perfectly good existing word, and (3) are clever and well conceived.

For instance, “emoticon” is a necessary new word, as it gives a name to something that did not have a name before. It’s easy to remember (emotion + icon) and describes what it’s describing.

But “irregardless” is a terrible word, as it means the exact same thing as “regardless.” This is a word coined out of ignorance, and it should be abolished from usage.

New words coined for use in business are added to dictionaries every year. But these words should be examined before we adopt them into standard usage, even at work.

For example, “actionable,” meaning “capable of being acted upon,” is a useful new word. There isn’t a preexisting word — one would have to say “this item can be acted upon,” rather than the shorter and easier “this item is actionable.” “Actionable” is also a legal term meaning “subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law,” but it’s easy to differentiate the two uses in context.

As of 2009, if you use “actionable” outside of a work or legal environment, you’ll just sound like an ass. But in 20 years, who knows? “I want to you to go to the store.” “Well, I’m busy, but that’s actionable.”

On the other hand, there are absurd, unnecessary business words that just cause confusion. Like “buy-in,” as in “if you want to do this, you’ll have to get the boss to buy-in.” It just means the same thing as “agree” or “consent.” It’s unnecessary jargon, used in an attempt to sound smart. It fails.

Some business words make no sense at all. “Componentize?” As in “to make something a component?” Who uses this? What does it even mean?

Business people love to turn nouns into verbs. “Let’s dialogue with Joe about the projects he’s been tasked with managing.” What, business people don’t know how to “talk” or “assign?” Let’s just let nouns remain nouns.

Other goofy, unnecessary new words from the world of work include disintermediate, disambiguate, facetime, instantiate, mindshare, operationalize (gack!), productize (double gack!), and the entirely meaningless buzzword “value chain.”

Also, don’t misuse real words: paradigm, offline, proactive, synergy, granular, interface. If you want to meet with someone, then meet. Don’t “interface.”

In business communications, it’s a good idea to, as the saying goes, eschew obfuscation. If there’s simpler way to say what you mean, say it that way. Heavy use of jargon takes more effort, and will confuse anyone outside of your own profession.

That said, you can’t be ignorant of the jargon used by others in your work. If you don’t know what a commonly used business term means, even if you never use it, you’ll come across as if you don’t know what you’re doing. But the next time someone says “I’ll ping you with a value proposition that will drive our critical path to establishing core competancies,” just reply “yeah, you can email me with your idea how to figure out what the hell our company does.”

Pedantry: A Simple Way to Impress Current or Future Employers

Originally posted on on 2/6/09.

DictionaryI’m a pedant when it comes to the English language. That’s a word that usually has a negative connotation, but I wear the label proudly.

From Wikipedia: “A pedant is a person who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of learning… The term in English is typically used with a negative connotation, indicating someone overly concerned with minutiae and whose tone is perceived as condescending.”

Condescending? Is it condescending to point out when an adult professional is violating rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling that they should have mastered in the third grade?

A lot of people seem to think proper English usage is unnecessary, especially online. They are wrong. There are a number of reasons to speak and write properly — clarity, for instance.

But in the workplace, proper language usage is vital. Especially in this new, disastrous economy, you need to do anything you can to put yourself ahead of other employees and applicants.

Even people who themselves are incapable of forming a correct sentence can recognize when someone else is writing or speaking properly. It’s impressive. It says “I am a well-educated professional person, and I take my job seriously.” You don’t have to be pedantic like me, and point out everyone’s mistakes, unless that’s part of your job (it’s part of mine). But by employing proper usage, you’re making a statement about yourself. It’s as important as business-appropriate clothing and personal hygiene, or showing up to work on time.

If you’re not a writer and editor like me, you may have fallen out of practice, or you may be making mistakes you don’t know are mistakes. You don’t have to take classes or read grammar guides to improve your business English, although that would help. You just need to start consciously paying attention to your speaking and writing. By eliminating carelessness, I assure you your English will improve quickly.

Here are some tips to get you started, based on common mistakes I see in my job.

1.) Use your computer’s spell check function, but never rely on it. If the spell check in your word processing software or on your web browser identifies a word as misspelled, don’t just let the program fix it. Check it yourself — sometimes the spell checker makes mistakes. Also, read through and edit your text even if you’ve used the spell check. When I originally typed this very paragraph, I wrote “word precessing.” Since “precessing” is a real word, the spell check didn’t catch it.

2.) Pluralize properly. The plural of “mouse” is “mice,” but the plural of “computer mouse” is “computer mouses.” Yes, really. Words that end in “s” just get an apostrophe, so it’s “my boss’ car,” not “my boss’s car,” unless you’re in England. There is no such word as “mediums.” The plural of “medium” is “media.” So say “I am an artist in several different media.” “Data” is always plural; the singular form is “datum” (isn’t Latin fun?). And proper pluralization brings us to:

3.) Subject verb agreement. What’s wrong with this sentence? “The group of high school seniors and sophomores were late for the big game.” The problem is that “group” is the subject of the sentence, not “seniors” and “sophomores.” And group is singular — “the group WAS late for the big game.” Always make sure your verb matches your subject. Likewise, “the mainstream media are castigating Obama,” not “is castigating.”

4.) Only use quotation marks for quotes. That’s it. Don’t use them for emphasis. Some people will put quotes around a word when they’re using the word sarcastically — “Jane went to see her so-called ‘boyfriend.'” This is okay on occasion, but don’t do it all the time. And as that last sentence showed, a quote within a quote gets ‘these marks,’ whatever they’re called (I didn’t claim to know everything). The final quotation mark goes after the punctuation. “Understand me?”

5.) Here’s a pet peeve of mine. “Literally” does not mean “a whole lot.” It means “take what I say as literal, not figurative.” So “his head literally exploded” is wrong, if you mean he got angry. It’s only correct if his head literally exploded — like in the movie Scanners. Say “he jumped the gun” if someone started something too early, and “he literally jumped the gun” if the person was in a footrace, and started running before the starter pistol fired.

6.) I’ll leave you with this quote, apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill:”Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!”

I could go on for days, but this is a good start. This stuff is really easy, and following these “minutiae” will make you, your writing, and any work you do seem more professional.

Oh, and please don’t confuse “its” and “it’s.” It’s really annoying, and English has its rules for a reason!