Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts on common Survey writing mistakes. Click here to see the previous item and here for the next item!


Like imprecise language, the use of slang, industry jargon, and colloquialisms can confuse your respondents and yield inaccurate or undesirable results. Remember the example question we examined in the previous item on multiple choice questions? Here it is again:

On average, approximately how much do you pay in US DOLLARS for a pint of beer at a pub in your neighborhood? (select one)

A) Less than $2
B) $2 – $2.99
C) $3 – $3.99
D) $4 – $4.99
E) $5 – $6
F) $6 or more

In addition to the obvious problems with the responses to this question (they overlap and don’t cover all possible scenarios), there is another subtle problem with the wording of this question. “Pub” is a colloquialism that is not commonly used in all English-speaking countries. In particular, “pub” is rarely used in the United States, and even when it is employed it typically has a very specific meaning: Irish pub. The average American reading this question would either be confused by the word pub or interpret the question to refer to “a pint of beer at an Irish pub.” While the author of the question probably intends for pub to represent drinking establishments of all types (pubs, bars, taverns, saloons, etc.), they have not clearly defined the term, leaving it open to (mis)interpretation.

A related problem we frequently encounter in professional Surveys is the use of industry jargon. Questions about the widgets, doohickeys, and thingamabobs you encounter in your professional life might make perfect sense to you, but be perfectly incomprehensible to others. Many words have different meanings in different industries (note that the word “survey” itself has multiple industry-specific definitions), and even within specific professions terminology can vary widely between companies and regions. For example, within the information technology industry there is no universally accepted definition of “cloud computing.” The term means different things to different people at different times, and the consensus interpretation of the term continues to evolve rapidly with new innovation. In fact, there has been so much disagreement and confusion among IT professionals about the true definition of cloud computing that the USA’s National Institute of Standards and Technology stepped in to provide one… and was promptly criticized for its efforts by those who disagreed with their interpretation!

Consequently, using the term “cloud computing” in a Survey question could be a recipe for disaster. If a respondent has a different understanding of the meaning of the term than you do, they might respond in a way that is unexpected or inconsistent with other responses. In everyday speech we utilize slang, industry jargon, colloquialisms, and catchphrases to convey meaning as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work for Surveys. You can’t take the easy way out and hope respondents will understand. Write your questions in plain English, and if you absolutely must use industry jargon make sure you clearly define the term the way you interpret it so there can be no confusion.