Beware of Wielding Unwieldy Jargon

By Mark Nichol

This post pertains to the pitfalls of employing jargon to convey ideas without considering that colorful usage may confound instead of convey.

I once edited a book that referred to “dual-wielding pistols,” a reference to the trademark weapons of a movie character: a brace of flintlock pistols. Mentally shaking my head in mild consternation, I revised what I considered an exceedingly awkward and misleading effort to express that the character routinely fought with both guns at once—a dynamic image commonly seen in action films, but one that depicts a strategy seldom employed in real life. As it turns out (meaning, I did some research), the phrase is valid, but not as the author employed it.

Websites and publications devoted to firearms sometimes refer to dual-wielding handguns—but with dual-wielding operating as a phrasal verb, not a phrasal adjective. One can use the phrase to refer to the action of firing two handguns at once (“Is dual-wielding pistols practical?”). However, because no firearms are specifically designed to be used in parallel—presumably (meaning, my research didn’t turn up any such weaponry), there is no such thing as dual-wielding pistols—there is no reason for such phrasing. Therefore, though the phrase exists, it was not correct as employed. And even if it had been used as a phrasal verb, although any reasonably intelligent reader could be expected to understand the phrase, because it is jargon, it would be more courteous to all readers to simply write something like “wielding two pistols at once.”

The lesson for writers is, one can be clear, concise, or both, but if you must choose between clear and concise, be clear.

Speaking of phrasal adjectives, one hallmark of jargon is to omit hyphenation in some such phrases, as they are understood to be terms of art (words or phrases understood by a certain readership and not requiring explanation or the hand-holding treatment hyphenation provides). Therefore, although the phrasal adjective in, for example, “data-governance initiatives” would generally be hyphenated in lay publications to clarify that the reference is to initiatives regarding governance of data, not governance initiatives pertaining to data, publishers of content intended for readers familiar with the concept might consider the helpful hyphen superfluous. (For clarity and consistency, such publishers should codify this style in a manual accessible—and familiar—to a publication’s writers and editors.)

In publications intended for the general public, however, dictionary usage should guide writers and editors in treatment of phrasal adjectives.


4 Responses to “Beware of Wielding Unwieldy Jargon”

  • D.A.W.

    I like to watch a TV series called ‘Why Planes Crash” because I find it to be interesting and educational.
    In the recent listings for this series, I saw a most dreadful phrase: “air-crash survivors”. It stunk. I would have put “survivors of airline crashes”, and done away with all hyphens.
    Yes, it does seem that many people have been inoculated against prepositional phrases.
    Furthermore, the writers of the listings for my CATV system seem to be British, or at least speakers of Caribbean English. I continually see phrases like “the family are”, “the team were”, and so forth.
    On a good note, I heard a South African woman who works for an American TV network. She reported on an oceanographic mission that used unmanned underwater craft, monitored via closed-circuit TV. She said “The crew is glued to the TV screen.”
    I felt like yelling CONGRATULATIONS to you!
    (No garbage about “the crew are”.)

  • D.A.W.

    “data governance initiatives” needs to be BRANDED as exactly what it is: pure bureaucratese!!
    Also, I need to insure what kind of “branding” that I mean: the kind that is done with a red-hot iron.
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    A “dual-seated” aircraft of another kind: this one is a “trainer” with one seat for the student pilot and the other for the instructor pilot (IP). Beware of the abbreviation “IP” because in aviation, IP can mean “instructor pilot” or “initial point”, as in a bombing run, and in computer networks, “IP” means “Internet Protocol”.
    Also, a “dual-bladed” propeller has two blades attached to the shaft, whereas a “triple-bladed” propeller has three, and a quadruple-bladed propeller has four. During World War II, the American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane originally came with a three-bladed propeller, but the P-47 was a huge, heavy fighter plane with a huge, powerful radial engine. Its rate of climb was poor, so they gave it a new propeller: quadruple-bladed, and other improvements to make is climb and fight better.
    In hand-carried weapons, there is the double-barreled shotgun.

  • D.A.W.

    Thank you.
    I had never heard of “dual-wielding pistols”, and that phrase could also be confused with “duel-wielding pistols”, such as the one between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
    I had heard of “dual-expansion” steam engines, and “dual-expansion” steam turbines” (with a high-pressure turbine feeding into a low-pressure turbine).
    These is also the “dual-action pistol”. In that one, when you pull the trigger, it cocks the hammer, and then it fires a bullet automatically. In earlier pistols, you had to cock the hammer, wait a moment, and then pull the trigger to fire the bullet.
    Then there are many uses of “dual” or “double” in aviation, such as these:
    a dual-engined aircraft (airplane or helicopter),
    a dual-seated aircraft (for two pilots, or for one pilot and one flight officer, e.g. radar officer),
    a dual-tailed aircraft, such as a P-38, B-24, ME-110, F-14, F-15, F-18.
    Several kinds of double-rotored helicopters, such as the CH-54 Chinook.
    A double-hulled boat, a.k.a. a catamaran.

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