The perils of indirect language

Created 9 Sep 2009 • Last modified 2 Oct 2018

I protest indirect kinds of language, such as jargon, euphemism, and shorthand, especially in technical writing.

The world is confusing and complex. Science and mathematics show us that even the seemingly simplest things can be difficult to understand in their entirety, and psychology in particular shows us that our own reasoning is error-prone. So we shouldn't further complicate things with unnecessarily complicated, verbose, compressed, coy, deceitful, or otherwise indirect language.

Often, language has to be complex because the idea we want to express is itself complex. And indirect language has its place in humor, fiction, casual conversation, and other contexts where entertainment is more important than communication. But when the point is to get an idea across, especially in technical contexts, like scientific journal articles, it's better to avoid indirection. Indirect language comes in many guises:

Indirect language is often intended to persuade. A person might use jargon to present themself as more sophisticated, or use a euphemism to make a mistake sound less harmful. It's better to persuade people with concrete reasons, facts, observations, or calculations than with strategic uses of language or other forms of spin. In my mind, the right uses of persuasion in general are to make people's beliefs more accurate and to improve people's decisions.