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Plain Language: Let’s Get Parenthetical

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Plain language makes your documents more appealing and easier to understand. But circumstances may require you to use jargon. For example, you may be a financial marketer or professional working for bosses or departments that insist on using technical or unfamiliar terms. You can help reader comprehension by explaining the term in the sentence where it first appears. Parenthetical explanations are useful, whether you literally enclose the explanation in parentheses or set it off using some other technique.

Here’s a good example from The Wall Street Journal (June 28-29, 2014), p. A2:

“We are in a Goldilocks-like age at the moment,” said asset manager Jack Flaherty, referring to markets perceived as not too hot and not too cold—just right.

Goldilocks is a colorful image for readers who grew up with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. However, it has a specific meaning in a financial context, so it demands explanation. Otherwise, the reader may wonder if “Goldilocks-like” refers to folks who wander into other people’s houses or try out different beds.

Option 1: Explain technical terms between commas.

One classic approach to explaining technical terms is to use the term and then add an explanation that’s set off between commas. Here are examples:

  • “And the duration of the index, a measure of how sensitive bond prices are to changes in yield, has risen to seven years from 5.8.”—WSJ (June 30, 2014), p. C6
  • “Much of the focus on the ‘Volcker rule,’ which bans most speculative trading by banks, has been on how it forced them to rein in trading desks.”—WSJ (July 1, 2014), p. C12
  • “Foremost is free cash flow, or what is left over to reward shareholders after investment needs have been met.”—WSJ (July 2, 2014), p. C1

By the way, I’m using examples from The Wall Street Journal to combat the idea that your sophisticated readers will be insulted if you explain technical terms to them. Plenty of very smart investment professionals read The Wall Street Journal daily. I’ve never seen one throw it aside in disgust with its style of writing.

Option 2: Put the plain language first.

Another approach is to start with the plain language and then add the technical term or nickname, as in the examples below:

  •  “The Australian dollar, also known as the Aussie, has risen 6.5% against the year, making it the second-best-performing major currency after the New Zealand dollar.”—WSJ (July 2, 2014), p. C4 — This is an example of introducing the less familiar term parenthetically.
  •  “David Einhorn of the hedge fund Greenlight Capital recently observed that some companies he is betting against—or selling short, in Wall Street parlance — have become the targets of takeovers, even though, in his view, they have significant weaknesses.”—The New York Times (August 8, 2014)

Option 3. Avoid using the technical term.

When possible, it’s great to avoid using the technical term. I bet 9 out of 10 financial experts would have used the term “spread” in the following sentence: “Investors have flocked to the $1.6 trillion junk-bond market in recent years, attracted by the income the bonds paid above debt perceived as safer issued by investment-grade companies at a time of historically low interest rates.”—The Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2014)

By the way, if you need help talking your executives into using plain language, check out my MarketingProfs article on “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing” (registration required).

Avoid this option: Enclose the explanation in parentheses.

Did you expect me to recommend the use of actual parentheses? I didn’t find any good examples of parentheses usage in The Wall Street Journal. Actual parentheses can be distracting, as explained in “Better writing without parentheses,” by my friend Harriett Magee.


–Susan Weiner, CFA, is the author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, which is tailored to financial planners, wealth managers, investment managers, and the marketing and communications staff that supports them. Read her blog or follow her on Twitter, Google+ or the Investment Writing Facebook page.

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