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In your experience, which types of terms are the most challenging to you or your customers? Is there a difference between long and short terms?

In a nutshell, a “term” is a word with a “special” meaning, be it technical, scientific, market-specific, political, and so on.

A term can have many forms. There are single word terms (cookie, volume and technology) and those made up of multiple words (information technology, mad cow disease, mid-ocean ridge basalt). Terms can also be acronyms (SARS, GILT, WHO), abbreviations (detox center, Euro), appellations (name of a single entity such as United Nations, Group of Seven), or even a symbol (©, €, ).

Single word terms can often be ambiguous without a larger context to define them. Think about the term volume which can have many different meanings, for example:

    (1) the amount of something;

    (2) the loudness of a sound from a radio, CD player, etc.;

    (3) a book or publication;

    (4) a unit of physical media which contains computer data (e.g. a disk or CD-ROM).

Now, compare volume to mid-ocean ridge basalt. If you wanted to find out more information about the former, you would first have to decide which type of volume you were looking at. For the latter, the term itself contains enough information  to give you an idea of the subject area to which it belongs.

I am not making the case for long and convoluted terms, merely observing how a multi-word term may carry more information than the sum of its parts. The trick is to come up with the shortest possible expression that can represent your concept. You need not look any further than your phone to see how this works with 🙂 , LOL and the plethora of shorthand that has developed since texting became such a prominent part of our lives.

However, business and technology cannot thrive on smileys alone. An analysis of technical content carried out by a software company in 2007 revealed that 75% of technical terms used in English user manuals and other content consisted of 2 or more words. Single-word terms only made up 25% of terminology. The need for clarity in technical content seems to outweigh the need for brevity.

I am curious to hear which of these types of terms you find most challenging? When interacting with colleagues and customers, do you find yourself elaborating on the short terms or trying to break down the meaning of the longer terms? Or is it the acronyms that trip you up?

I am looking for some real-life examples of where terminology (short or long) acted as either a help or a hurdle in communication.

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3 Comments

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  1. Shawn Crane

    In the electricity industry we have switching which is changing your electricity retailer. Within switching there is a “Move Switch”, which is where someone moves into a property and changes the incumbent electricity supplier, and “Transfer Switch”, which is where some has had a contract at a property with a retailer for a time and then chooses to change retailer.

    There is a tendency to reduce “Transfer Switch” to just “Switch”. So we have “Move Switches” and “Switches”, however the whole thing is also referred to as “Switching”. This generally devolves into asking clarifying questions when talking of switching to accurately determine what is being referenced. We also have “Move Ins” which aren’t to be confused with a “Move Switch”.

    Clear communication using accurate and agreed to terminology is vital for quick communication that reduces misunderstanding. In addition, the time saved in shortening some phrases is generally lost in the time taken to ascertain accurately what is being discussed.

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  2. Hanne Smaadahl Post author

    Thank you both for your thoughtful comments.

    Not surprisingly, a discussion on this topic will often include a discussion of homonyms (terms having the same spelling/pronunciation but different meanings and origins), as illustrated in Alfredo’s example of ‘screen’. Other such examples are ‘class’, ‘domain’, ‘page’, ‘account’ to mention just a few. It is such a common thing that one has to wonder why, when coining new terms, do we reach for the most familiar words rather than the more descriptive ones?

    Shawn’s point about how trying to save time by shortening phrases usually ends up costing us time in the ensuing discussions is right on the money. We’ve  all see this happen in the translation process, and I found it especially interesting that his point was illustrated based on a single-language example. The case for good terminology starts long before translation.

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  3. Hanne Smaadahl Post author

    (Reposted from LinkedIn with permission) Ulla Magdal Petersen:

    This is not an ‘either or’ question. Where the context is local and known to all, you can use even very short terms in communication. We all do that in both family and work contexts.
    But outside local context, especially in digital messaging across organisations, you need to supply a definition, a reference or a ‘long term’ to ensure a common understanding.
    Formal definitions are often difficult to decode, so you may need to use a combination of a ‘long, precise term’ or and a short ‘recognizable term’ with low precision.
    This is what we do in Denmark in nationwide communication of medical laboratory results.
    The results are presented on screen at e.g. the national health portal with a short and not unique term (abbreviation or medical slang) giving the overall meaning, and a long, unique, fully defining term and code from the international NPU terminology (via mouse-over or the like) giving details of measurement units etc.
    Example:
    Short term: NTx;U
    Long term: NPU26755 U—Collagen I, cross-linked N-terminal telopeptide fragments; subst.c. = ? nmol/L

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