Editor reports results of jargon survey: Staff is iffy on some agency terms

by | Apr 5, 2011 | Plain Language Writing Courses, Writing Matters Blog | 0 comments

For this post, I am glad to welcome guest blogger Sarah Shepard, Senior Engineering Research Editor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). You may remember Sarah; I blogged about her a few weeks ago. She’s the plain language advocate who came up with the best strategy ever for showing her colleagues that DEC’s jargon compromises clarity. Sarah tested DEC’s jargon on DEC itself. Read the original post here: Editor surveys staff to see whether they understand their own jargon.

I asked Sarah to get in touch when the survey was complete, and here’s what she has to say:

“Results from the DEC jargon survey are in and I am surprised. The response was huge. Almost 30% of the 3,000 people in our agency responded. As surveys poured in, I realized people were motivated by more than the desire to win the pizza we’d offered.  Why did so many take the survey? On my good days, I think the survey resonated with those who are frustrated with how we communicate with the public. On my not-so-good days, I think some people completed it to protect their own jargon.

They claimed to know lots of terms
I was surprised that 80% of DEC knew what brownfield, consent order, and aquifer meant. Really?  We’ll never know for sure because we didn’t ask people to define the words they claimed to know. Take the term angler days, for example. Within our Plain Language group, some thought it meant the days you could fish for free. Others thought it was the length of the fishing season. Neither is correct, but everyone thought they knew what the term meant, so highly confident responses on the survey have to be viewed with some skepticism.

They admitted to being iffy on some terms
In contrast, the data from the “I’m not familiar with this word” and “I’ve heard it, but I don’t know what it means” categories was clear. Less than half of our staff knows what anadromous means. Ditto for viewshed and down wood. Climate change lingo — carbon sequestration, low-carbon economy, and green-collar workforce — was equally unfamiliar. Despite confusion about these terms, the survey showed our staff is in command of much of our jargon, although reluctant to label it as such. “Ruminant is not jargon,” I was told, but a “legitimate scientific term that everyone should know.”

We surveyed the public and they were stumped too
Curious about which terms the public did know, I opened the survey to them. Well, not exactly the true public, but family and friends of DEC staff. As expected, the public was even more unfamiliar with the terms that stumped us.  But there were a few surprises. Seventy-one percent of our slice of the public thought they knew what riparian meant. An even higher percentage said they knew the meaning of non-point source and biosolid. Could this be? Even if it’s true, that still means about 30% of those outside DEC don’t understand these words. That’s a lot of people. We need to be careful where we use such words.

If you want more detail about survey results, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Thanks for your interest in DEC’s jargon survey
Our jargon is just the tip of our non-plain language iceberg. The heavy lift will be taming the use of  wordy, inflated language. We have been known to write shoreline recreation amenity when we mean beach. More (and more carefully designed) surveys are planned, in which we’ll test selected words on targeted audiences. I’m happy to share the results of this jargon survey with anyone interested, including those of you who have already contacted me to express your (much appreciated) support. E-mail me. Let’s keep in touch!”

Survey participation

  • Total number of DEC staff who took survey: 894 (out of 3008)
  • Total number of public who took survey: 413

Survey options

  • Not familiar = I’m not familiar with this word
  • Seen/heard = I’ve seen/heard this word but I don’t know what it means
  • Unsure = I think I know what this means, but I’m not sure
  • Know = I know the meaning of this word

Least familiar scientific jargon: anadr0mous 

  • Not familiar: 43.8% (DEC); 53.8% (Public)
  • Seen/heard: 10.5% (DEC); 10.9% (Public)

Least familiar regulatory jargon: attainment area 

  • Not familiar: 25.5% (DEC); 30.5% (Public)
  • Seen/heard: 14.8% (DEC); 16.2% (Public)

Most familiar jargon: invasive species

  • Know: 95.4% (DEC); 93.9% (Public)

Largest difference in familiarity between DEC and public: non-point source

  • Not-familiar: 8.4% (DEC); 20.6% (Public)
  • Seen/heard: 4.1% (DEC); 6.5% (Public)

Shouldn’t everyone at DEC know the term environmental stewardship?

  • Not familiar: 2.8% (DEC); 3.9 % (Public)
  • Seen/heard: 4.3% (DEC); 3.6% (Public)
  • Unsure: 15.1% (DEC); 16.5% (Public)

The public understands  some terms better than DEC does

  • Know the meaning of  low-carbon economy: 35.2% (DEC); 45.3% (Public)
  • Know the meaning of green-collar workforce: 38.9% (DEC); 44.6% (Public)

Tags: Government web writing, Plain language


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