retro mac

This post is part of the Let’s Talk Terminology series.

When I was in college, I got my first Macintosh. It was so exciting! I used it to write my senior thesis which explored the assumptions we make about a person if all we know is that he or she is a stereotypical fan of a particular music genre. (Fascinating topic. Let me know if you want to read all 75 pages.)

But, I digress. So, I got my first Macintosh. And the most exciting thing about it, other than watching the 300 dpi printer go zuuuut zuuuut, was the plethora of fonts. Wow! Look at all those fonts it had. I could use Palatino, Times, Helvetica, Courier, Garamond. The list went on and on. It was so very simple to use them. And use them I did. My thesis was loaded with fonts. Different fonts for different topics. Different fonts for different headings. It was a glorious work of art.

How does this relate to terminology, you ask? I see the same zeal in my customers who select terms to manage. This is particularly true of my Acrolinx customers, because it is so easy to manage the terms and, after all, there are so many terms to choose from. My point here is that when you are considering the terms you want to include in your terminology database (or table or spreadsheet), too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Just like we’ve pretty much figured out that two font styles in a single document is sufficient and less headache-inducing, it is important to be selective about the terms you choose to manage. Otherwise two things happen:

  • Managing your terminology becomes quite unwieldy
  • You drive your writers absolutely nuts

Determining which terms to manage is half art and half science. Let’s explore.

The List

Here is the list of term categories that my linguistic team came up with. This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s what we could think of. I’d love to hear about additional categories if you have any.

Terms that have legal implication

These are terms that, when used incorrectly, could open your company up to a potential lawsuit. Your legal team probably keeps close track of these terms, particularly in highly-regulated industries. Correct usage of terms that have a legal implication is obviously very important.

Product and brand names

Making sure that your product and brand names are used correctly is something near and dear to the hearts of all product managers and marketing directors. Strict adherence to names helps establish your product and brand in the marketplace. If you are inconsistent when you use a product or brand name, your customers can become confused and your content certainly seems sloppy – as if the right hand and the left hand are not communicating. There can also be trademark and copyright implications, so always check with your happy team of lawyers if you are confused.

Made up words

Have you noticed that in the internet world we keep making up words? It’s amazing to me. Sometimes, I think people name their companies by closing their eyes, typing, and seeing what happens. We’ve created entire categories of products using made up words. For example, eBook, ePub, eNewsletter; pretty much anything that has a lowercase “e” in front of it. There are lots of made up “i” words, too. 

Even more interesting is when we switch parts of speech – such as a noun becoming a verb. We no longer look something up on Google, we Google it. We don’t ship a package using FedEx (which, back in the day was Federal Express – far too many characters), we FedEx it. We don’t send a message on Facebook, we Facebook each other. When you use words that are not in any dictionary, it is important to make sure everyone is using them in the same way.

Prohibited words

Every customer that I can think of has a list of words that writers should not use. There are many reasons you would decide to prohibit (or deprecate) a term:

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Comprehension
  • Brand
  • Translation

Keeping a list of prohibited terms is important. Equally important is have at least one preferred term for each term that you deprecate. Telling people what terms they cannot use, without giving them an approved replacement is annoying at best and risks having them select another deprecated term at worst.

Words that have variations from common usage

Have you noticed that, more and more, we spell common words in unique ways? Yeah, me too. Most of the time, we decide to get creative with the way words appear using unique capitalization, such as eXtension rather than extension. Sometimes, we don’t know where to put periods. For example e.g. versus eg.

Even more often, we decide to capitalize words that would be considered common if they weren’t capitalized. Sometimes, I find that companies get capitalization happy. I think they figure that if they capitalize the words, people will think they are more important. In effect, creating proper nouns from nouns out of almost everything. Usually, that’s not the case. If you capitalize too many words, your readers start ignoring them and then they cannot tell which terms are actually important brand or product-related terms. Plus, capital letters are distracting. Don’t make everything a proper noun. Save proper nouns for when they are really proper nouns.

Keep in mind that every time you use common words in uncommon ways, you have to manage them to make sure everyone is doing it right.

Words that are different in different dictionaries

Did you know that different dictionaries can have different spellings for the same word? Okay, maybe you did. But I was surprised. For example, Merriam-Webster uses Web site as two words with a capital “W”, and The Oxford Dictionary uses a single word, all lowercase, website. In this situation, looking up correct usage yields different results and unless you have standardized on a corporate dictionary, writers can be confused. Pick one word (actually, it would be best to pick one dictionary) and use it consistently. Make sure the term is managed so that everyone uses the same version.

Multiple variations of words that are acceptable to your spellchecker and need to be standardized

There are lots of words that have multiple variations that are accurate according to your spellchecker. For example:

  • email and e-mail
  • bicolor and bi-color
  • standalone, stand alone, and stand-alone
  • fiber optic and fiber-optic
  • check box and checkbox
  • login and logon*

Interesting note about login and logon: The Oxford Dictionary contains both terms. Merriam-Webster only defines the term login. If you look up logon, you are taken to the page for login. See what happens when we make up words?

What you should not manage

There is one big category of words that should not be managed:

Words that are common and used in a common way.

There is no need to manage a term that is simply a word (or a word cluster) that has nothing special about it. Just like there is no need to use six fonts just because you can.

To sum up

We all know that there are many terms in your organization that need to be managed. It’s important to figure out which ones they are and then it is important to manage them properly. My best advice is to take the “less is more” approach when you select the terms. The fewer terms you have to manage, the better. Try to use normal words with normal spelling, normal punctuation, and normal capitalization. It will save you a lot of time in managing terminology. It will save your writers a lot of effort in either remembering or looking up terms. And it will make things more clear for your readers.

Have additional categories? Click here to join the conversation. 

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.

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