Jargon and Acronyms: Beware

I read a blog post recently that started with an analogy to laying tiles, something most people can grasp, but then shifted to engineering jargon. Any reader who can understand the second half of the blog post has no need for the simplified explanation in the first half. Any reader who needs the simple version to understand the concept will likely get lost trying to read through to the end of the post. This post was from a company I respect, whose blog posts are usually excellent, but in this case, I think they missed the mark.

This strikes me as a perfect example of the challenge of understanding your audience. Are you writing for engineers who are experts in your field and want to read about the fine points of your company’s latest breakthrough? Or are you writing for executives who care very little about the technical details and just want to know how the new technology will save time or money?

Jargon can serve the function of separating those in the know from those who are ignorant about a certain field of study or industry. If the audience matches the jargon, there is nothing wrong with using it. But beware that a mismatch may send your readers running the other way.

I can’t talk about jargon without also mentioning acronyms. They sometimes breed with alarming frequency. In my world, scientists and engineers seem especially fond of acronyms, but I don’t think that any industry is immune. Acronyms can, of course, be useful when used appropriately. For example, who wants to read an article about NASA where the authors write National Aeronautics and Space Administration every time they refer to the agency?

Most acronyms have many possible meanings depending on the context. Does ABS refer to a plastic (polymer) material made up of three components, each one starting with one of the letters in the acronym? Or does ABS mean antilock braking system? And what if your antilock braking system includes a part made from acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS)?

I once edited a report where the authors used the same acronym to mean two different things. Talk about confusing! My suggestion was to just fully write out one of the phrases, the one that only appeared twice in the entire report.

I like to think I can write about nearly any topic in language that non-experts can understand. As an example, I recently wrote an article for a client about a technique related to advanced lithography. The title and first paragraph alone shout that this article is geared toward engineers. But I can explain the general idea to a lay audience.

Lithography is a technique that originated as a form of printing multiple identical copies of an elaborate design on a flat surface. The word “lithography” comes from the Greek, combining the words for “stone” and “writing.” The earliest lithographs used a limestone stencil for creating a design, but modern methods are based on rubber or metal printing plates. The design is formed with a coating that repels water. Oil-based inks cling to the coated areas but not to the rest of the printing plate, allowing the design to be transferred to the final product.

Semiconductor chip manufacturing takes advantage of lithography to produce microscopic electrical circuits. Instead of printing plates, semiconductor lithography uses photomasks to create patterns. Because the technique relies on exposure to light, it is called photolithography. Silicon wafers are coated with photoresist, a material that interacts with ultraviolet radiation. Regions of the coating that are exposed to ultraviolet light through the photomask remain on the wafer after etching, while unexposed regions can be rinsed off in a subsequent etching step.

Creating a semiconductor wafer requires many photolithography steps, with a separate photomask for each step. Photomasks are custom-made and are very expensive.

Photolithography can create extremely fine patterns, on the scale of 10 nanometers. For reference, one nanometer equals 1/1000 of a micron. A human hair is about 100 microns thick, or 100,000 nanometers.

The article I wrote discusses a technique that is an alternative to lithography. Instead of using a plate or mask to create a patterned design, the material itself creates the pattern. As a materials scientist, I find this fascinating. The concept relies on materials called block co-polymers. The two components of a block co-polymer are not uniformly mixed together but naturally segregate, forming separate blocks of component A and component B.

When the material is heated to a certain temperature, it automatically forms into regular, repeating A/B patterns. The dimensions of block co-polymer patterns can be extremely small, in the range of 10 to 30 nanometers. The two components may arrange themselves into cylinders or plates, either parallel to or perpendicular to the surface onto which the material is deposited.

Nanometer-scale patterns are created by etching, where one component dissolves in the etchant and the other remains on the surface. The end effect is like that created with photolithography. 

I realize that I am not immune from the lure of jargon. My blog aims for an audience of intelligent readers who are interested in learning but who don’t necessarily have any previous knowledge of materials science or semiconductor manufacturing. If I use jargon you don’t understand, call me out on it. I will go back and edit the offending blog post. Or perhaps I will start a new one to explain what I meant in plain English.