Organizations can benefit from consistent terminology in many ways. Communication between departments and customers improves, misunderstandings diminish, and the product brand strengthens. Consistent terminology is also the foundation for controlled authoring. Instruction manuals become more comprehensible and customer-friendly, translation costs decrease, and technical writers have more time for other tasks.
Still, many organizations lack the financial and human resources for comprehensive terminology work. Especially small companies and service providers cannot afford a full-time terminologist or an expensive terminology tool. In this article, we explain how you can run a successful terminology project despite limited resources.
What is terminology?
When we talk about terminology, we mean all the technical or special terms that are used in a business, in art, science, or in a specialist field. Terminology is a specialist language. If we do not use it correctly, we cannot efficiently communicate in our business or field.
Do I need a commercial tool?
Many organizations that do not have terminology tools, use Microsoft Office applications. Staff members create tables with allowed and forbidden terms and share them with coworkers. Without defined processes though, these tables get outdated soon. People store the tables on their local computers, make changes, or add entries. Sooner or later, several single files are flying around. In the end, everyone uses different tables – and different terms.
Are there inexpensive alternatives that provide good results? In this article, we present cost-reducing measures for the seven phases of a terminology project:
Phase 1: Planning
Analyze the initial situation. Identify and collect affected documents and document databases. Find out whether your organization already does terminology work. If so, how is it done?
Define your objectives. What do you want to achieve with the terminology project? Also, lay out a realistic project schedule.
Name a terminology project manager. Also, determine whether your terminology database will be monolingual or multilingual.
Consider which departments you want to involve in the terminology project and which of the identified data you want to use as a basis for your data collection. At the beginning, you could focus on one department only. As soon as your data collection is sound, you can involve more departments.
Begin small and let your terminology grow steadily.
Aim for a large target group but keep the circle of terminologists small.
Create transparent communication structures.
Involve the subject matter experts.
Phase 2: Extraction
Once you have identified and collected the documents, you can start extracting the technical terms.
Extracting technical terms from monolingual text can be difficult. Compounds are especially challenging. For example, when you create a simple word list of all occurring words, elements that belong together are usually not recognized.
The word list you get after the extraction looks more like a raw diamond than a finished terminology list. You still have some work to do.
First, remove all the duplicates and stop words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.). Then process and standardize the extracted words from a terminological point of view. Also, each word list contains various entries that you don’t need in the next steps, for example, unspecific verbs. Remove them too. In Microsoft Office, perform the following steps:
- Remove punctuation marks in MS Word.
- Replace space characters with paragraph marks.
- Copy the list into MS Excel.
- Remove all the duplicates.
- Remove the stop words.
Phase 3: Standardization
The next task can be challenging. You need to define the relevant data categories for all terminology-list entries, such as “definition” and “status”. Consider, however, that the time of your team members is valuable. They probably cannot look at countless categories per entry. Find out early in the project which information your target group needs. Monolingual authors can have different requirements than translators who work with multiple languages.
Naturally, each word list will contain synonyms and ambiguous designations. The greatest challenge is to select the best version and, if necessary, create matching designations. Check each entry against a check list for good terminology. The following definitions and examples are partly taken from the tekom publication “Erfolgreiches Terminologiemanagment in Unternehmen” (successful terminology management in organizations).
1. Conciseness and Clarity
For a concept, assign one designation only. Reversed, one designation should always characterize just one concept.
Examples: Car, motor car, vehicle, motor vehicle, passenger car
Spell designations consistently so that you can search for them via automatic search functions.
Examples: Registration number, license plate number, number plate, registration plate
2. Transparancy and Motiviation
Use designations that are transparent and motivated. People who are unfamiliar with the designations, can still understand their meaning due to their structure. With a transparent designation, readers get at least an understanding of the concept. Compound words work great for this purpose.
Examples: hyperinflation, unicycle
A semantically motivated designation transfers a common word into expert language. The word loses its original meaning and gets a new, specialist meaning.
Examples: hand railing, computer virus, breadcrumbs
If there already is a designation for a semantically related concept, use it. This way, you ensure that your terminology is consistent and coherent.
Examples: coupon vs voucher, screen vs monitor, shipment vs delivery
Make sure that your readers are familiar with the terms. Terms should not confuse or irritate, or worse, have negative connotations. Use non-judgmental terms and gender-fair language when you refer to people or groups of people. If the abbreviation BEOD (by end of day), for example, is uncommon in your organization, do not use it.
Example: At the end of each month, the product manager asks his team to report the results.
Better: At the end of each month, product managers ask their teams to report the results.
Short terms are easier and we remember them better. Short words also reduce the use of undesired abbreviations.
Check whether a new term can be used for derivations. That’s especially important in English and German where words often derive from others.
Example: to support support (noun), support engineer, support manual
Make sure that designations always correspond to grammatical, morphological, and phonetical rules of the language.
- Correct: server-client connection
- Wrong: server client connection
- Correct: ongoing
- Wrong: on-going
8. Prefer Native Language
Do not use foreign words if there are words in the native language that are common and understood. Not only do you rule out misunderstandings, you also avoid problems when building grammatical forms.
- cul-de-sac – one-way street
- e.g. (exempli gratia) – for example
- de facto – in reality
9. Comply with Law and Standards
Use established designations from legal and standardization documents. These designations are usually unambiguous, linguistically correct and objective, and contribute to the consistent use of terminology.
- Example: Each motor vehicle owner must register his or her car with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.
- Better: Each automobile owner must register his or her automobile with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.
If you use global vocabulary, especially when it originates from Greek or Latin, you can standardize your terminology at an international level and improve communication.
Examples: benefit, biography, fragment
When you process and standardize terminology entries, include the target group of your terminology project. If the future users like designations, they will use them.
Regular terminology meetings increase the motivation and acceptance of your target group. At these meetings, representatives from the different departments discuss the consistent use of designations and how rules and processes can be enhanced or changed. Chair of the meetings is the terminology project manager.
- Carefully select the data categories.
- Hold terminology meetings on a regular basis.
- Aim for consistency. Choose one preferred designation per concept and ban this designation from using it for related concepts.
- Document all project-related and company-related terminology rules.
Phase 4: Publication
Now you can share your terminology list with the users. You could use commercial products, which are expensive, or cheaper alternatives, such as Microsoft Office applications. You could also publish your terminology list in an existing company wiki, which is free.
In short, you can publish your terminology list in the following ways:
- Use a commercial terminology management system.
- Store it on a server in your organization and make it available to everyone.
- Use a company wiki.
Phase 5: Maintenance
After you have published your terminology list, make sure that the results of your hard work are lasting. We recommend that you regularly check if designations are still up-to-date. Also, ask users for feedback. This way, you can constantly update or add new terms. A wiki is especially suitable for this:
- You can use it across departments.
- Users can add comments and participate in further developing the terminology project.
- Regularly check whether your terminology is up-to-date.
- Involve your users by allowing them to comment and recommend new functions.
Consistent terminology in organizations does not have to be expensive. The methods and tools we discuss in this article could help you carry out a terminology project without huge costs and still reach many users. And if users can participate in the terminology project, they will accept defined designations, and use them.
- Schmitz, Klaus-Dirk und Straub, Daniela: Erfolgreiches Terminologiemanagement im Unternehmen: TC and more GmbH, Stuttgart 2010.
Read also our knowledge article Terminology Management Systems.