Use Your Words

It is common to criticize lawyers for “legalese”:  those unnecessarily complex sentences full of puffed-up, self-important words and phrases like “hereinafter,” “malfeasance,” and “inasmuch as.” Maybe because lawyers have spent so many years and so much money on their education, they feel like they have to sound smart when they speak and write. It’s certainly intimidating when you pick up a contract, even a so-called “plain language” contract, and see pages and pages of this kind of “including but not limited to” jargon.

Engineers, we are not immune from this habit. Articles, blogs, websites and comment boards are full of terminology that sounds impressive and communicates… nothing.

Engineers like “inter-” verbs, like “interact” and “intersect,” because they sound professional and scientific. But they also hold their subjects at a distance. Roads intersect, as do points on a graph. These contacts are passive; they cross and move on without having any impact on each other. On the other hand, chemicals in an experiment may interact quite dramatically, but these reactions just happen to them without intention. In the real world, people meet up; they connect; they clash; they work; they fight; they hash things out; they compromise; they accomplish things. In comparison, mere interaction seems passive and boring; the idea of intersection doesn’t even seem to make sense.

And then there’s one of the trendiest verbs:  to interface.  What does it mean, exactly? What does it add to our lexicon that was not adequately expressed by “meet,” “engage with,” or any of the active, vibrant verbs listed in the previous paragraph? In fact, due to its technological roots, it adds a sense of disengaging, not connecting, because it suggests the interaction of machines, not people. As engineers, let us shake the stereotype that we are more comfortable with technology than with humanity and banish this verb from our vocabulary.

We also need to be careful not frame our words in such a way that we can continually pose questions without ever proposing solid solutions. By choosing broad, nearly undefinable words like “sustainability” or “engagement” or the scientist’s favorite pair “qualitative” and “quantitative,” we can argue forever about what we mean by our terms rather than how they ought to be applied in the real world. When a website calls for a discussion about how to transform something in the developing world, we can discuss a “top down” approach versus a “bottom up” approach, or we can talk about a “web of infrastructure” or state that “objective empirical research” is needed and proceed to debate the depth, breadth and scope of that research, without ever once making a practical suggestion for solving the real-world problem that needs to be addressed. This may feel safe and wise, but it is not helpful. It uses words to hide, rather than to reveal, meaning.

Just something to think about, the next time you’re in front of a keyboard.

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