This post covers English (monolingual) glossaries and terminology, only. Multilingual terminology will be covered in a future post.

One of the first and most important questions I ask any customer who cares about content quality is, “Do you have a terminology list?” About 70% of the time, the answer is, “Yes, we have a glossary.” Though they both have their uses, glossary and terminology are not the same thing.


Glossaries and terminology do have things in common:

  • They contain standard (dictionary) words
  • They can contain non-standard, made up words, such as product names, buttons on a GUI, and more
  • People use them when they need help with words

That’s about where the commonalities end.

What is a Glossary?

A glossary is a specialized list of words and definitions. Usually, you’ll find a glossary at the end of a non-fiction book. More and more, companies are creating standard glossaries so that words and definitions can be shared by many people. The words in a glossary can be standard words that you would find in a dictionary. A glossary can also contain non-standard, made up words that your organization uses. The words in a glossary are specialized in that they are selected based on the contents of the book they append.

You might find only a single definition of a glossary word, even if the word has multiple meanings that you would find in a dictionary. For example, if you are part of a technology company and you have the word default in the glossary, you are most likely to have just this defintion (care of Merriam-Webster):

1)  a setting, option, etc., that a computer uses if you do not choose a different one

You are less likely to include this definition:

 2) a failure to make a payment (such as a payment on a loan)

And even less likely to include:

3) failure to appear in court

If you are part of a legal firm, you would likely include the third definition (failure to appear in court), instead of the other two choices. And if you work for a bank, you are more likely to include definition number 2.

Glossaries are normally used for clarification. A reader checks a glossary to get a better understanding of a word that was used in the content. Glossaries can contain illustrations, sound, and even video.

Glossaries do not contain information about the word. For example,


noun di-ˈfȯlt, dē-; ˈdē-ˌfȯlt

This type of information is found in a dictionary, but not in a glossary.

What is Terminology?

Terminology is defined as a system of terms (words) that belong to something in common. Terminology is a system, not a list of words. It contains standard words and usually contains non-standard words, as well. The terms may or may not include a definition, illustration, sound, or video. A term can be a single word, but it also can be multiple words (often called a noun cluster).

In general, terminology is a collection of terms that are managed.

What does it mean to manage terminology?

Managing terminology can involve a number of different things:

  • Allowing and disallowing the use of a term. One of the main roles of terminology management is to standardize word usage. For example, you might standardize on the word select and disallow the words click, tap, and press.
  • Allowing and disallowing variants of a term. For example, you might allow the singular form of a word, but disallow the plural.  Or you might allow a term to be captialized, such as your company name (Google), but disallow it using lower-case (google). Or you might allow the term footlocker, but disallow foot locker and foot-locker.
  • Allowing and disallowing a term as different parts of speech. For example, you might allow the term check as a noun, but disallow it as a verb.

Because terminology is most often shared among a group of content creators, it enforces consistency within a piece of content or among many pieces of content. If your content is more consistent, it is easier to read. It is also easier to translate, cheaper to translate, and helps produce better quality translations.


One of the important differentiators between a glossary and terminology are the available tools. Many authoring tools allow you to create a glossary while you are writing. This is very convenient, because you don’t have to track the glossary words separately or look for them later.  There are a few packages on the market that are used to create glossaries, but none of them can do what a terminology management tool can do.

Terminology management tools can be quite robust and include:

  • Web browsing
  • Accessibility by multiple users across a department or enterprise
  • Access control by user or type of user
  • Capacity to manage a large or limitless number of terms
  • Full searchability using multiple filters
  • Storage for additional pieces of information with each term, such as reference, source, department, product line, and so on
  • Harvesting of terms from your content
  • Ability to create term usage rules

There are lots of tools out there to help you manage your multilingual terminology. Just do a Google search on terminology management tools to get a long list.

There are far fewer robust tools for managing your source terminology. By that I mean, tools that your content creators can use to make sure they are using allowed terms, not using disallowed terms, and following the rules of term usage. As you probably know, my favorite is Acrolinx. Content Rules is an authorized service provider and reseller of Acrolinx. I selected Acrolinx because I think it is the most robust, feature-rich, and intelligent software I could find.

Interested in Acrolinx? Want to talk terminology? Click here for more information.

Val Swisher