What You Need to Know About Selecting Glossary Terms
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What You Need to Know About Selecting Glossary Terms

It’s simple: if a term has any level of ambiguity, it should be included in your corporate glossary or termbase.

There, blog post done. Or not, since that very statement is itself shrouded in ambiguity. Terminology management is an important element of any content creation and localization workflow, so establishing a solid glossary of your company’s key terms should be well thought out and easily accessible. Let’s take a closer look at how to set up a glossary and select the right terms.

What is a glossary?

A glossary is a record of terms and additional information about them. It can be formatted in a variety of ways, from a simple list to multi-column Excel sheets. It houses your terms and the guidelines on how to use them—their context, spelling and proper capitalization, whether any terms are forbidden, rules on synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, etc. It can be as robust or as simple as you want.

A termbase is a type of glossary that is more formally structured like a database for use with authoring or translation tools. Termbase fields are usually customizable and contain a good amount of data about each term.

Why term selection matters

Having a good glossary or termbase is critical because it creates consistency. It gets language out of people’s heads and into a central place with guidelines. When terms are clear and concise, there are many benefits:

  • Client-facing content and products have agreed, consistent and clear language;
  • User experience and product usability are enhanced;
  • Brand is strengthened globally with clearer messaging;
  • Research time is reduced due to consistent definitions and metadata;
  • Legal and security issues from inconsistent or unintended language can be avoided;
  • Content can be created more quickly and get to market faster;
  • Search engine rankings are enhanced; and
  • When using machine translation (MT), outputs are improved.

So, how do you decide what to put in your glossary or termbase? Selecting a series of terms suddenly sounds like a daunting prospect, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Important? Yes. Impossible? No.

Concepts: the foundation of a glossary or termbase

Before we get into the process, we need to introduce what a concept is, because when a word becomes a term, it has to be attached to a concept when it enters the glossary. The best way to show what a concept is to use an example.

Let’s take the term “resource”. When talking about people, it might not be the right term to use; it’s a pretty cold way of referring to people you work with. So, the term would be forbidden in this context, and we would be heavily encouraged to use more thoughtful words like “professionals” or “people” (after all, that’s what they are). But “resource” isn’t a dirty word in other contexts, so it can still make it into the glossary; it just has to be tied to the right concept. Therefore, it could be used in non-human terms: “natural resource”, “financial resource”, “material resource” and so on.

So, terms chosen for your glossary or termbase have to be tied to a usage, an idea, a context—a concept.

Making the cut—the selection process

Selection criteria revolve around looking at things in a certain way. It boils down to asking the right questions of each term candidate. If we answer “yes” to any of these questions, then almost certainly the term should be included:

  • Is the term unclear or confusing to translators, users or anyone else?
  • Is the term often used incorrectly?
  • Are there multiple synonyms for the term?
  • Does the concept belong to technical language related to your product and not to general speech?
  • Is the concept specific to your target audience?
  • Is the concept complex?

So, now you understand the importance of managing terminology and you’ve selected the terms you want to use in all your materials. But there are other use cases for term selection that enterprises don’t think of at first.

Finding terms for SEO and social media

Up to this point, the process has been about refining terms so that we reduce similar word and synonym usage in order to get to a consistent, single term. But SEO is where things get flipped on their heads. With SEO, you want to cast the net as wide as possible and find all the terms that people are using to describe a concept. You may ask, “what are the most generic terms for this concept? What is it that people are searching for?” and there will be several answers because you are looking for multiple, high-ranking keywords. Unlike traditional terminology work, which is one concept to one term, SEO work is about one concept to several words (which may be, in fact, terms).

A blended approach applies to hashtags (which are really just keywords) in social media when trying to join trending conversations. You have to use what people are searching for in order to be found, but at the same time, you may want to bring them back to how you want to refer to things so that you have a consistent brand voice. With hashtags, it’s a marketing balancing act between casting a wide net with a lot of terms and choosing a very specific term related to your brand that your audience may or may not be using yet.

Just do it

So, will the world end if you don’t select terms properly? Probably not. Will your business be negatively impacted? If you’re in manufacturing, financial services, pharma, tech or any business that wants to go global, then maybe.

Simply put, good terminology reduces miscommunication, not to mention additional cost when fixes are required.

But term selection doesn’t have to be hard. Get a system in place and define the rules for what term gets used when. Ask questions about every word you’re not sure of and document the results in the glossary. And above all—do it now. Your business depends on it.

If this blog post has piqued your interest in the terminology process, you can read more about it in our ebook, The Basics of Terminology Management.