Jargon and Buzzwords

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part VII

I received a comment from a reader in response to the “Not-A-Verb List” that I posted as part of our science writing series. He wanted to see an article about the vague words used in life-science marketing and cited in particular his disdain for the word “robust”. I’ve done some research and found a great article entitled the “Content-Free Buzz-Word Compliant Vocabulary List”, an article listing words that are so over-used they have ceased to convey any real meaning. Interestingly, “robust” is right at the top of the list.

So, if our buzzwords of efficiencies, synergies, continual improvement, robust procedures, scalable assays, and world-class science are not communicating anything, what should we do?

First, we need to be precise with our language. This goes back to my suggestion that we use words that we understand. Do not use “big” words to communicate ideas that can be described by more commonly used, more easily understood words. Language is precise. Words have specific meanings and connotations, and we need to ensure that we understand the meanings and the connotations of the words that we use. Good writers are precise with their language, and precision helps to convey meaning.

Second, we need to be specific with our ideas. If an assay is “robust,” does that mean that signal was well above background? Or does it mean that the assay was linear over five logs of enzyme concentration? If we are not specific with our facts, the word “robust” says nothing to our reader. Even worse, the reader may assign a meaning to “robust” that we did not intend. By the way, does anyone know what is meant by a “robust” immune response?

If a biological assay is “easy-to-use”, does that mean that only one pipetting step is required? If so, say so. If a method “saves time”, does that mean that you can complete your protein digestion in three hours at room temperature rather than overnight at 37°C? If so, say so. When we are specific and provide details, we communicate our message to our readers on the first read, without leaving room for confusion or misinterpretation.

Here are a few other words that have been so overused and misused they are being rendered content-free:

  1. Unique. Often found in phrases like “most unique” or “quite unique”. Unique means “one-of-a-kind”. It is impossible for something to be the “most one-of-a-kind .” So, if your new protocol is the most unique method for DNA extraction in existence, well…
  2. Literally. Used often in figurative language as in: He literally charmed the pants off everyone. Oh really?
  3. Next Generation. As in next-generation technology. If it’s next-generation technology, how can it be available today? Perhaps the words “latest” or “newest” would work just fine.

Can you think of others? I would love to hear about them.

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

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7 thoughts on “Jargon and Buzzwords

  1. Dear Michele

    Please forgive me emailing you in such a seemingly cold fashion. You seem to share my love of language and I wondered if you might like a mutual link to my English word website:

    http://www.thewonderofwhiffling.com

    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)

  2. I’ve been enjoying following your Science Writing series. While I’m not in science per-se, what you have written about does pertain to any technical writing which I do have involvement in.

    Do you have a location or compilation of all the articles in this series? I’d love to be able to link to them for both my reference as well as to pass it along to others who may find use in these tips and suggestions.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Michele,

    This is so nicely written that I don’t have much to say…except that I really like the part where you say marketers should describe why something is, for example, easier. I was taught to list features, not benefits, and this goes one step further in quantitating the benefits clearly for customers.

    Thanks!

    Mary

    • Hi Mary,

      I’m glad you liked the post and thanks for your comment.

      In our pressed-for-time world, I think it’s really important to be specific about the benefit, and that specificity usually involves at least a mention of the feature. (So really, you need both.) If you only mention the feature, then the reader has to figure out for herself what the benefits are. It takes a few seconds and more thoughtfulness on the part of the reader, and when you only have a few seconds to grab your target reader, stating the specific benefits quickly can make a difference.

      For example: “Reduce pipetting error: The improved buffer with xyz added allows you to assay for both activities simultaneously with only one pipetting step.” There are lots of potential benefits (reducing error, performing only one pipetting step, saving time by performing two assays at once), all a direct result of the fact that the buffer now contains xyz (the feature). You can tailor the text to lead with the benefit that is most likely to catch your target reader’s attention.

      Michele

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