Tech Terms to Avoid
In two weeks, I’ll celebrate my eighth anniversary writing this column. And if I do any ruminating during my 15-second celebration, I’ll recognize that one thing still hasn’t changed: there’s still no single technical level of writing that makes everybody happy.
I still get complaints from total newbies, who are bewildered by terms like “smartphone” and “plasma TV.” And I still get bashed by the gearheads, who find the column not nearly technical enough.
I think a lot about the technical level of the column. Over the years, I’ve adopted a number of tricks that are designed to communicate technical points without losing the novices–and one of them is avoiding jargon.
Why tech writers use so much jargon, I don’t know. Maybe it’s self-aggrandizement; they want to lord their knowledge over everybody else. Maybe it’s laziness; they can’t be bothered to fish for a plain-English word. Maybe it’s just habit; they spend all day talking shop with other nerds, so they slip into technospeak when they write for larger audiences.
In any case, I’m making available to all, for the first time, my list of pretentious pet-peeve words to avoid. I used to consider plain-English writing a competitive advantage, so I’ve never leaked this list to potential rivals. But at this point, forget it; any tips that might contribute to clearer writing deserve to be free.
* Content. As in, “Web content.” Ugh. If you mean “Web pages,” say “Web pages.” If you mean “music,” say “music.” Nobody outside the tech industry says “content” when they mean “what’s on your player” or “what’s on your Web site.”
* Device. You know what’s weird? Cellphone companies never actually use the term “cellphone.” They always use the word “device,” as in the wince-inducing sentence, “The user can transfer D.R.M.-protected content to their device.”
Look, I get it: these days, cellphones do more than make phone calls. But you don’t need to abandon the term “cellphone” for that reason; the meaning of “cellphone” has already expanded to accommodate its new functions. If you say “cellphone,” your audience already understands that it means “a gadget that makes calls, gets on the Internet and takes crummy pictures.”
* Dialog. The term “dialog box” is already a problem, since it doesn’t really identify what it is (a message box on the screen, forcing you to answer a question–like how many copies of a printout you want). But unfortunately, there’s absolutely no alternative. And shortening this to “dialog” is definitely a step in the wrong direction.
* Display. “Display” can be a noun (“a display of fireworks”). It can also be a verb that takes a direct object (“He displayed emotion”). It is not, however, a verb without a direct object, except in magazines like PC World: “Shows filmed in high-definition end up displaying in letterbox format.”
Displaying what in letterbox format? Fireworks? Emotions?
The word this writer was looking for is “appearing.”
* D.R.M. What’s so nauseating about this term is that it started out as a euphemism. It means copy protection, which most people don’t like on their software, music files or videos. So with doublespeak like “digital rights management,” the companies who favor copy protection think they’re putting a positive spin on the concept. And by using “D.R.M.” instead of “copy protection,” we’re playing into their sad little manipulation.
Sorry, Charlie. It’s still copy protection, and we should call a spade a spade.
* Enable. Who on earth says, “Enable the GPS function”? Only user-manual writers and computer-book authors. Say “Turn on GPS” instead.
* E-mail client. Originally, someone coined “client” to distinguish your computer’s e-mail program from the computer that dishes it out (the server). But when you’re not explicitly trying to make that differentiation, just say “e-mail program.” The only people with e-mail clients are the lawyers who represent Outlook and Gmail.
* Functionality. WOW, do I despise this pretentious word. Five syllables–ooh, what a knowledgeable person you must be!
It means “feature.” Say “feature.”
* LCD. What I hate about this word is that it doesn’t say what it is (“the screen”). And even if you spell out what it means in parentheses, you still haven’t told readers what the heck you’re talking about. (“Liquid crystal display? Ohhh, so THAT’S what it means.”)
* P.D.A. Here’s another ridiculous term–ridiculous because it’s not self-explanatory. “Personal digital assistant?” Give me a break. It’s a palmtop.
* Price point. What are you, paid by the word? “Price” alone does the job.
* URL. This one’s common, but I still can’t stand it. “Uniform Resource Locator”? Oh, thank you–that helps. NOT!
I use “Web address.” Same number of syllables, and crystal-clear.
* RAM. Here again, there’s a plain-English word that does the same job without the intimidation: memory. That’s a word that says what it means.
* S.M.S. The ultimate pointless term. “Text message” is the same number of syllables, and also says what it is. “SMS” doesn’t do anyone any good–but it does baffle the non-technical.
* Support. I don’t mean “support” as in “tech support,” although even that term is a corporate creepy cop-out (it means “help line”). No, I mean the verb, as in, “The laptop supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.”
In no other corner of modern discourse is “support” used that way. I use “has,” “offers” or “works with.”
* USB. I use this term in my writing, but only reluctantly; there simply isn’t any other term that does the job. But it’s a hateful term–even knowing that it stands for “Universal Serial Bus” doesn’t begin to help you understand what it is. Let’s have more clever, self-descriptive names for jacks, like FireWire or (for Apple’s wireless) AirPort.
* User. There are two industries that refer to their customers as “users” –technology and illegal drugs.
When you’re writing about computers, there’s almost never a sentence where you couldn’t substitute “you” or, worst case, “the customer” as the noun and thereby improve the sentence. Instead of saying, “The user can, at his or her option, elect to remove this functionality,” say, “You can turn this feature off.” It’s not only clearer, but it gets you out of the awkward “his or her” bit.
* Wi-Fi. I use this one occasionally, but only with gritted teeth.
It’s just not a good term. It doesn’t say what it means. People think it stands for “wireless fidelity,” but the Wi-Fi Alliance, which hired a branding firm to create it, says it doesn’t stand for anything.
I use the term “wireless hot spot” when I can, but only because there’s no more comprehensible alternative. (“Bluetooth” doesn’t immediately convey that technology’s function. But at least it’s better than “Wi-Fi.” Once you hear that it’s named for a Danish king who brought together warring factions, you never forget its meaning.)
And there you have it: Pogue’s Anti-Jargon Dictionary. You’re free to use it to launch your own writing careers, with my compliments!
P.S.–Set your TiVo! This Sunday, October 19, I’ll report on the Encyclopedia of Life on “CBS News Sunday Morning.” (The Encyclopedia of Life, eol.org, is an ambitious international “moon shot” of a project. It will attempt to catalog and describe every single one of the Earth’s 1.8 million known species in one place, drawing on both experts and ordinary citizens to fill in the blanks.)