Terminological Consistency: quality through precision


Always naming the same things the same way - that's terminological consistency. There are many reasons in favor of the consistent use of terminology in our communication - particularly in technical descriptions and instructions.


The main one is that a consistent language helps the reader to understand the text. For example, if the author of a text constantly jumps between the terms “spanner” and “wrench”, the reader will start to wonder whether they are two different tools or the same one.

Why is that the case? Well, while taking in information, people always assume that the conveyor of that information wants to tell them something specific and therefore only mentions things that are relevant. In other words: we expect every piece of information to be relevant. So we also assume that the use of a new word indicates a new situation or an additional piece of information.

Want to see for yourself? Imagine your surprise if you were to read the following in an instruction booklet:

  • Remove the light bulb from the packaging
  • Turn off the light at the light switch
  • Carefully twist the old light bulb from the fitting; in doing so, beware of the hot electric bulb
  • Screw the new bulb into the fitting

The first reaction of the mind - which functions according to cognitive communication rules - is to search for a hidden meaning behind this additional information: an “electric bulb” versus a “light bulb”. We want to believe that the author is trying to tell us something important and that there is possibly another danger in addition to the light bulb itself. Why else would the author suddenly use the new term – electric bulb – in the same sentence? Or have we maybe totally misunderstood the meaning of “light bulb” at the beginning and it is something different, not the light source but something… unknown? A small element of doubt creeps in.

In the best case, the brain gives up after a short amount of time and decides that there is no deeper hidden meaning.

Avoiding ambiguity

It doesn't always work this way. In the worst case, ambiguity due to variations in terminology leads to costs and personal injuries that could have been avoided.

Let's take another look at the “wrench” and “spanner” variants. If both terms are used in the documentation for the tool supplied with a machine, several completely identical tools might be added to the delivery. And the material master data will also contain doubles of parts and materials – a potential cause for error and administrative expenses.

What might seem like a rather trivial error is actually viewed by businesses as a risk to the success of their projects and products. Words light the way for customers, starting with the initial contact on the website, continuing with recognition of the product in the shop or in reports, through the order and handling and on to commissioning and ordering replacement parts.

Increasingly, also component suppliers are faced with their large clients’ demand to establish a consistently uniform terminology, from the construction phase to the multilingual documentation and on to spare parts business. And there may even be penalties for non-uniformity. Therefore, for the contractor, such an error has a clear associated risk.

Content management systems - technologies for the modularization and management of multi-functional text units - ensure efficiency in content creation with large, dynamic amounts of text. Therefore, they also automatically ensure consistency – an ally in the battle against the muddling of words. Clean building blocks lead to clean buildings. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: errors crop up due to the multiple use of the building blocks. The effect of inconsistent terminology is even more dramatic here, as the same continuous document is generated from building blocks by completely different authors.

The same applies to translation memory systems: they are fed with segments from different translation projects. If they become polluted by inconsistent translations generated over time due to unclear terminology in the source texts, then errors will spread through new documents like wildfire.

Establish a clear, valid company terminology

Anyone who now wants to dash to the documentation department and demand instant consistency had better hold on, though. The documentation department alone cannot solve this problem.

Consistency is first achieved through the establishment of clear, valid company terminology and its functional integration into all company processes.

Company terminology is an integral part of the company language, and the creation of a corporate identity is a task faced by the entire company. If this weren't the case, it would be called “documentation terminology” or “translator terminology” or even “engineer terminology”. Consistent terminology, from construction through to documentation and marketing, can only be achieved if every individual employee at a company participates and takes on their responsibility.

But that's easier said than done. The challenge is not insignificant, particularly if old stock needs to be reprocessed.

But the good news is: there are ways and means. There are methods, tools and best practices. Nobody has to reinvent the wheel, but expert help is required. Today, thanks to language technology, we have the ability to automatically “harvest” specialized terminology even in large, multilingual texts and to technically support the harmonization process along with all necessary adjustments and corrections. Professional terminology management systems promote consistent terminology and simplify the modeling and visualization of taxonomies and dependencies between terms.

Is your terminology in need of a spring-clean? Then read what my colleague Andreas Ljungström has to say about it – you won't regret it!