“Process” isn’t jargon

Science writers Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer know their business – they write about science for a general audience. They get through by avoiding technical language and using concrete examples and metaphors to explain complex ideas in a simple way – they choose their topics carefully and structure their arguments clearly. They argue that jargon is the enemy.Scientists seem to find it hard to avoid the specialist language they’ve become used to using when writing for one another, and this presents a barrier when communicating with a non-specialist audience. Now scientists are increasingly writing directly for the public at large (for example in blogs), but many have yet to learn the basics of communication.


In his blog on the topic, Ed quotes Tim Radford:


“No one will ever complain that you’ve made something too easy to understand.”




“Don’t overestimate your reader’s knowledge and don’t underestimate their intelligence.”


This seems like especially wise advice which could form the basis of a manifesto for anyone who wants to communicate about science, and I whole-heartedly accept it. I am a scientist, not a writer, and I have a lot to learn. I know I should reject jargon and I try hard to do so.


So what is jargon. Zimmer has helpfully put forward a list of banned words, which he describes as “scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches”. Most of Zimmer’s words (“orthogonal”, “anomalous”, “morphology”) fall undeniably into one of these categories and it’s easy to see why they should be avoided. On the whole, the exercise is useful, if a little prescriptive. But I have to say  that one or two examples jumped out at me as inoffensive, everyday words.The clearest example is “process”. For some strange reason I feel compelled to rebel against the idea that my non-scientist friends and family will find it offputting. The suggestion just seems a bit bizarre to me and I feel irrationally driven to respond (just a tiny bit like Stephen Fry here).


The word “process” in common usage.


My Chambers dictionary includes several definitions. They include:


4. a series of actions or events
5. a sequence of operations or changes undergone.


These are not highly technical concepts, but scientists like myself are often involved in understanding and explaining systematic patterns of change, so it is a relief that the English language already provides a succinct two-syllable word for this key concept. Simpler sounding words such as “way” do not, for me, cover the sequential, dynamic character of a “process”, and I am forced to use less attractive terms like “sequential” and “dynamic” to explain the essential difference. So I would prefer to use the word “process”- I think my friends and family will understand it. Am I deluding myself?  


Language is itself the subject of scientific investigation – we don’t have to rely on our own (or Carl Zimmer’s) intuitions about whether a word is familiar or not, we can look at the data. Word frequencies (the number of times a given word is seen in a representative collection of speech or writing) as an objective measure of the general familiarity of different words. Word frequency is related to reading comprehension – not surprisingly, texts using more common words are more easily understood.


One of the most widely used word frequency was developed in the late sixties by Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis. It’s a little out of date now, but it is still one of the best measures we have of how common or rare a particular word is in the English language. “Process” has a Kucera-Francis (K-F) frequency of 196. Here is a list of words with similar frequencies (between 190 and 200) in the MRC Psycholinguistic database.


ALONE                      195
BELIEVE                    200
BOOK                       193
CUT                        192
DR                         192
ENGLISH                    195
FINALLY                    191
GONE                       195
IDEA                       195
INCREASE                   195
LIVING                     194
LONGER                     193
MEAN                       199
MODERN                     198
NATURE                     191
NEAR                       198
NOR                        195
PEACE                      198
PERSONAL                   196
PLAY                       200
PRIVATE                    191
PROCESS                    196
RED                        197
ROAD                       197
SAYS                       200
SECRETARY                  191
SITUATION                  196
SOON                       199
SURFACE                    200
TABLE                      198
TAX                        197
THIRD                      190
TYPE                       200
VALUE                      200
WOMEN                      195


It strikes me that words with K-F frequencies between 190 and 200 would be well within the grasp of most school-educated adults. Is there any real reason to think “process” is special and different? Like many words it can be used in a confusing or needlessly technical way. But I found several examples in recent editions of the British tabloid, The Sun, a paper whose skilled writers are reportedly able to produce copy that would be understood by a typical 14 year old. Here are a few sentences from this week’s issues:


“Keating put Childs through to the finals even though he frequently forgot his lyrics during the audition process.”


“The reigning champions have lost three out of four Premier League games – scoring just one goal in the process – and seen their lead at the top of the table wiped out.”


“Meanwhile, chairman Phil Gartside has begun the process of trying to retain the services of in-form striker Johan Elmander, whose existing deal runs out in the summer.”


“Having just filmed the video for the track, he is now in the process of securing airplay for the song.”


If tabloid journalists can use the word when reporting sports, news and celebrity gossip, then I think science writers need not be concerned that it will alienate or confuse their audience.


I think the second part of the Radford quote above is important – “don’t underestimate their intelligence”. A non-scientific audience is not an uneducated or illiterate one. So our choice of language should reflect our respect for the audience’s intelligence. Censoring myself over the use of the word “process” would feel dangerously close to being patronizing and dismissive.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

3 thoughts on ““Process” isn’t jargon”

  1. To be honest, I’m not fussed about “process”. I’ll use it. Carl may have his own reasons. I like your reasoning. The one thing I would caution is that looking up word frequencies is a flawed approach, because context is important for jargon. Put it this way: if a word has an everyday meaning, that does not mean that it is an everyday *word*. Take “leverage”. As a noun, it has a specific meaning that people may or may not understand. As a verb, it’s horrendous business jargon. When I argued with you over “mechanism”, it was precisely this. You said that mechanics should have no problem with the word, and that’s true. But “mechanism” has a number of different meanings. As a part of a machine, it is commonplace and widely understood. As a process by which something happens, not so much. This I actually do have firsthand experience of. I’ve stuck mechanism (as in “biological mechanisms”) into leaflet before only to have the term questioned in focus groups. The word may have some special significance for you over simpler alternatives, but I’d argue that’s largely irrelevant if that special significance cannot be conveyed to your audience. I go back to the rounding analogy I used in my post. Scientists make acceptable compromises in accuracy all the time in their work; language shouldn’t be an exception to this.

  2. I don’t really see the problem with “process”, either, but maybe Carl can explain why he included it in his list…I have to say that the word frequency approach also raised alarm bells, though. Looking through the list you included in your post, “mean” stood out to me. This word has several different meanings (to signify [argh, there’s a bad one!]; evil; tight-fisted,…) but scientists use it to refer to a specific value/calculation (the mean). Just because the word “mean” has a high frequency, that doesn’t mean (sorry!) that many readers are likely to know exactly what you’re talking about when you refer to “the mean” in this sense. And it’s even more confusing for non-native speakers, I guess…

  3. Thanks, @Ed and @Aur_ora for these thoughtful comments.It’s good to see that there is some agreement that “process” is not a particularly problematic word. Perhaps it should be struck off Carl Zimmer’s banned list. @Ed – I would point out that if context is important as you say (I agree) then adopting a “list of banned words” is wrong (since it doesn’t take context into account).It’s fair to say word frequencies are a blunt instrument. I wouldn’t rely on them alone, though I do think they provide one of the best objective measures we have if we want to compare the degree to which general readers will have encountered different words, and I am not hearing much contrary evidence that “process” is either overused or highly-technical.“Process” has multiple definitions and can be used as both verb and noun, this might inflate its frequency relative to other words which are associated with fewer meanings. Yet, I think the post above establishes that some of its meanings are straightforward, non-technical and directly relevant to scientific issues, that it is in common usage – at least comparable to other very familiar words in terms of the number of times it is appears in written English – and that it is indeed regularly used in a conventional way in the readable, everyday English used by tabloid journalists. All these go against the idea that it is specialist, technical jargon or lazy cliche. It’s just a word. A very useful word.As I psychologist I know the word can very easily be abused to paper over the cracks in an explanation – (we have lots of others, not all of them yet on CZ’s list!) – but this is always a problem with the particular writer/scientist and their argument, and not with the word or concept itself.“Mean” is a good example of a word with multiple (sorry, “many”) familiar meanings and at least one highly technical one. I wouldn’t use the technical sense of “mean” for a non-scientific audience unless my argument depended on the distinction between mean and, say, median (in which case I’d probably have to define both terms or else avoid them by using longer explanatory phrases). So I’d have to think about the sense I am using the word in, and its context before deciding whether and how to use it. If I did use mean in its technical sense without thinking about it, it would be a problem with my writing, not with the word or concept itself.I think “mechanism” and “system” (and possibly “multiple”) will have to wait for a later blog post, but I do have reasons to want to use these words, and I think that, like “process” they are neither highly technical nor lazy overused terms.Rest assured I will not be referring to word frequencies when I decide what to say or write. But I do think perhaps Carl Zimmer might reflect on them before adding words to his banned list. Fortunately our brains store information about the words we encounter more and less often, together with their associated meanings. We are able (perhaps forced) to access this information implicitly when choosing how to speak and write. This is what gives us the sense that a word such as “process” is likely to be understood by others. I imagine this sense can become distorted if we spend a lot of time communicating with a specialist audiences and using specialist terms. So, scientists need to be very wary of jargon when communicating with general audiences, and I agree with the thrust of Ed’s original post on the topic. My main point is that this avoidance of jargon must, I think, to be balanced with a respect for the audience, their intelligence and their vocabulary. I think the idea of banning words is a bit like burning books in that it runs the risk of removing ideas and concepts from the currency of thought and discussion. But if a list of “banned” words helps people to think about the whether and how they use a particular term, perhaps it serves a useful purpose.

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