Vocabulary First Aid Kit

Have you been misunderstood and had to live with the consequences? If so it’s time for the vocabulary first aid kit. In a few easy steps you can band-aid your communication and help it to improve.

Distinguish between Concept and Term

Terms are merely name tags for the concepts. It is much more important what you mean when you use a term, and that’s called the concept. So always clarify concepts before you discuss terms.
Don’t say
   „No, you’re wrong, a rental vehicle can be a car or a trailer.“
Rather say
   „When I use the word „rental vehicle“ I’m talking about both cars and trailers.“

Identify Synonyms

People often use more than one term for the same concept. Such terms are called synonyms. It’s what we learned at school writing essays. Communication is much more efficient when the same term is consistently used, so try to agree on a preferred term for every concept. But make sure that the terms are really true synonyms and are not used to express subtle differences between related but slightly different concepts.

Be aware of Homonyms

Discussion about terms and concepts often uncovers homonyms, i.e. terms that are used with different meanings. They are a major source of misunderstandings, especially when general and unspecific terms are used. It is crucial that you discover homonyms and then resolve the situation by using separate terms for the different concepts.

Recognise Communities

Be prepared to deal with different communities that use different terms for the same concept.

Create a Glossary with  the most important Terms

Compose a list of the most important terms and have it agreed by stakeholders. Motivate everybody to use the terms from that list. Even without definitions such a list improves communication by either adding clarity or provoking necessary discussions.

Agree on precise and minimal Definitions

A definition of a concept should be made according to one of the following patterns:

Pattern 1: Intensional definition

New concept =  general concept + specific properties
Example: A woman is a person of female sex.

Pattern 2: Extensional definition

New concept =  either specific concept 1 or specific concept 2 or …
Example: A person is either a man or a woman.

A good definition is not only precise, but also minimal.
Minimal means:
Nothing can be taken away from the definition without changing its meaning.
Examples, explanations, differentiations and repetitions do not belong into a definition but into a comment.
Bad example:  A woman is a person (even a young one) of female and not male sex.

Follow this simple advice and you will live a happy life!
Well, maybe not. But you will at least avoid many inconvenient misunderstandings.