Monday, May 22, 2006

Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Jargon: Reason #4

In Reason #5 I (loosely) defined jargon as a language that's unique to a particular line of work. As I sat down to write this, I thought it would be interesting to see what the proper definition of jargon is. I'm relieved to report that my definition is pretty close to at least one of the meanings given in Webster's New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition):

"the specialized vocabulary and idioms of those in the same work, profession, etc..."

I've had clients argue it's important to use jargon when speaking with others in their profession because doing so demonstrates to other professionals that they know what they're talking about. Also, between members of the same profession, jargon often is used as a sort of short-hand.

But, Reason #4 for avoiding jargon must always be remembered: even between people in the same profession, jargon can have subtly different meanings -- and, worse yet, these subtle differences (which can be quite important) can easily go undetected.

I came across an example of this early in my career as a tax lawyer. As part of my tax training in the U.S. I learned about capital gains. One of the most important features of a capital gains in the U.S. is that such gains are taxed at different -- usually much lower -- rates than so-called "ordinary" income.

When I began practicing tax in Cananda, if I came across the term "capital gain" I automatically thought about the low tax rate. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that such gains are not necessarily taxed at lower rates in Canada.

Though the significance of capital gains treatment is very different for Canadian and U.S. tax practitioners, it's interesting to me that at cross-border tax conference I've never heard a speaker acknowledge the difference. Conference participants assume that because they're speaking the same language (English) and they're talking to other professionals trained in the same specialty (tax) -- when they use the jargon (capital gain), they assume others understand the significance that they've attached to the term.

In fact, in such a situation the use of jargon actually causes a subtle misunderstanding. Makes you re-think the usefulness of jargon, doesn't it?


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