How to avoid jargon and acronyms
Jargon can be useful. Imagine saying “child and adolescent mental health services” instead of the accepted abbreviation “Camhs” every time. Jargon is shorthand between professionals and is fine if everyone at a meeting or reading a report understands it. But jargon is excluding when people aren’t in on what can sound like an impenetrable secret code.
1 Know your audience
The trick is to think carefully about who you are talking to when using jargon, and whether they will understand it. There are so many layers. Your team may have its own private jargon. So will your local authority or charity. And your region, country and government all have their own special language too. Avoid jargon when talking to service users.
2 Multi-professional teams
As social work becomes more integrated with health and education, the government has acknowledged that different professions use different jargon.
The Department for Education and Skills has produced a glossary for managers and practitioners working in multi-agency teams, to improve communication. Lack of a common language can hinder effective working. The glossary explains words which are “commonly confused or misunderstood by practitioners working in a multi-agency setting”.
A quick browse of terms defined – from A to V – shows the sensitivity of language. For example, under A: the word asset has a specific meaning, it is an assessment tool produced by the Youth Justice Board for use by youth offending teams. Under V, the definition of vulnerable explains that some practitioners strongly dislike the word, particularly if applied uncritically to large groups of children, such as children with disabilities. Some believe the term labels or stigmatises, and prefer instead to use “children with additional needs’, it says.
The glossary can be found at http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices/multiagencyworking/glossary/
3 Practical tips: case study 1
Nottinghamshire Council has a plain language group. Volunteers read council materials (eg leaflets, brochures, websites) before publication, to make sure they can be easily read and understood and are written in plain language. The scheme was set up because the authority recognised that information published by local government, including social services departments, is not always easy to read.
4 Practical tips: case study 2
A campaign to encourage staff to use plain English, spell out acronyms and explain terms which colleagues or service users may not understand was recently launched by Hounslow Primary Care Trust. The campaign against jargon and acronyms is called I don’t speak NHS and the trust has produced a guide for staff on how to avoid them. Useful tips include banning business or management speak, including terms like thinking outside the box and blue sky thinking. Such phrases are widely derided and often unclear, advises the Hounslow staff guide. Acronyms are best avoided but if you must use them, “spell them out the first time you read or speak them and explain what they are,” it says.
5 Clients or service users?
The debate over what social care professionals call the people they work with shows how jargon changes. For many years, vulnerable people were clients, now the favoured term is service users. A final word from Community Care’s practice editor Graham Hopkins, described in his book, Plain English for social services. Hopkins recalls “trying to out-liberal a social worker who was championing the term service user” when talking to a young man with Down’s syndrome. ‘What would you prefer to be called?’ asked Hopkins. The young man’s answer? He would like to be called by his name, Colin.