Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/December 2010/Editorials

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Jargon and acronyms, by bahamut0013

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Let's face it: military history is as much a science as an art (especially articles about military science). Like all good sciences, it has its own language, some of which is intuitive, some of which has trickled into popular lexicon, and some of which might as well be Attic Greek to the average reader. Even worse, modern militaries tend to use buzzwords and an alphabet soup of Acronyms and initialisms, especially when political sensibilities are involved, which can make comprehension difficult even for the well-informed. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia's goal is to translate collective knowledge and references into a format that is accessible by the average reader, and this can be a tricky thing for a writer to do.

If you've ever taken an article through the grinder at MILHIST's assessment and/or review departments, then you know that one of the bullets on their checklists is comprehensiveness and comprehensibility. Believe it or not, you can have both. The essay Wikipedia:Many things to many people illustrates the need for making content accessible to readers of all backgrounds and walks of life, which is further emphasized by the essay Wikipedia:Make technical articles understandable. This goes well beyond simply technical matters like alt text and converting units of measurement (though those are important), but into the very prose itself. Don't confuse this with mere grammatical checks; it involves the necessity for strong writing quality. You have to be able to take the raw information from the references and present it in a clear logical manner.

Making your article readable isn't necessarily synonymous with Basic English or Simplified English (This is the goal of the Simple English Wikipedia). A good writer can make something readable by a reasonably educated reader without resorting to using fourth-grade English skills. What is important to readability is layout and word choice. Military articles tend to be heavy on the technical terms, but the smart writer can simplify them easily. Aside from pulling out your thesaurus, wise use of Wikilinking (including piped links and Wiktionary) is a good way to offer a reader access to a term which would probably be known to a majority of readers, but would impede the comprehension of an individual who did not. For example, the most people reading the article Normandy landings probably know what a landing craft is, so you can safely link the term instead of defining it. You might also want to wikilink to a term that might have more than one meaning, or could be ambiguous without context (i.e. "light fighter" could refer to a small fighter aircraft, or light infantry). This lets you avoid having to define that term in the prose itself, which you should avoid as much as reasonably possible. For example, instead of explaining what the Direct Air Support Center is and does, simply link to it and possibly be very brief about how it is relevant to the subject. Balancing precision with conciseness can be tricky... sometimes it might be better to write a new article than waste an entire paragraph explaining a tangential topic.

In respect of the policies of neutral point of view and no original research, the wise writer will be aware of words to avoid, like peacocks, weasels, idioms, and neologisms. Respecting the source text is one thing, but blindly copying puffery and political correctness without regard is poor form. For example, the United States armed forces have lately been fascinated by the terms "cyber-", "smart" (pertaining to Precision-guided munitions), and anything "counter-insurgency" related; while the term "special" is in vogue with many Asian militaries which religiously label equipment with the "type" designation. Of course, one can't really help the words used in proper names, but one needn't abuse them because they sounded sexy to the generals who coined them. The names of weapon development programs are usually contrived with buzzwords to make them more appealing to the officials who authorize funds, but a Wikipedian can simply use the term "project" to refer to it after the introduction. Equipment that has an alphanumeric designation and a name can be easily referred to by one or the other (instead of both), as long as it is done consistently, such as McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet being called the "F/A-18" or "Hornet".

I must make a special mention of acronyms. Personally, it's a major pet peeve of mine that militaries love to use acronyms for just about anything, technical or not, mundane or high-profile. It makes sense when it is a mnemonic for a contrived name, but I despise backronyms, contrived acronyms, and acronyms that exist just to exist. My best advice for this is to avoid the use of acronyms whenever possible, or you will simply wade into a sea of capitalized letters that force a reader to constantly refer to the initial definition. One of the worst practices I see is when a writer uses the acronym either without explaining it, or defines the acronym without ever actually using it (these are probably a result of being close to the subject and using the acronym frequently enough that its use is unconscious in the author's mind). For example, if you introduce "MAGTF" as meaning Marine Air-Ground Task Force, but never use the acronym "MAGTF" again, the acronym is unnecessary and can be removed. Also irritating to me, but unavoidable, are terms that seem to be an acronym, but are in fact the actual name.

Always try to look at your writing as if you were a reader that isn't particularly familiar with the topic. Sometimes, if an article's subject is so narrowly technical that it becomes unreasonable to write for a layman, qualify this with some kind note in the lead section, and offer some wikilinks so that the reader might be able to learn what is required. However, this should be the exception to the rule, and all articles should aim to be comprehensible by the majority of the English-speaking world. It always helps to get a set of fresh eyes. Happy editing!