Background: Why is terminology important?

Someone once told me -- possibly a math professor -- that what separates the amateurs from the professionals is that the professionals in a field use correct, accurate terminology. This allows other people in the field to cross geographic, regional, and corporate boundaries; and communicate in a common, technical language.

Additionally, I consider myself a moderate-expert in the field, and I'm someone relatively senior in our organization from a technology perspective. Therefore, I feel it is the responsibility of any such person to mentor others, lead by example, and ensure we collectively put our best foot forward.

What's more, if it were simply grammar, I'd only make noise about it for published material. But in this case, there is a remote chance it could cause communication issues, both in communication artifacts, as well as verbally.

An example scenario:

When people use some terminology incorrectly, I do feel it is important to correct it. As an example, someone in my field used the name of a browser engine developed by Apple interchangeably with an application runtime sponsored by Intel, and now it's catching on in other areas outside my field. For instance, I've heard at least one person in, let's say, marketing, who is now using that term incorrectly. While the product sponsored by Intel uses some of the same technology as the product built by Apple, what one can do with these two technologies is vastly different. In short, they are not remotely the same.

The name of the Intel-sponsored product contains a portion of the name of the Apple product. Think "Foo" as the Apple product and "Foo-Bar" as the name of the Intel-sponsored product.

Someone started calling the Foo-Bar platform "Foo", and this is starting to catch on. I feel it's my responsibility to correct this, but I also feel like this can come off as arrogant. This is a fairly flat organization without a massive hierarchy, and all of the people involved are essentially coworkers.

How can I correct people's use of the terminology without sounding arrogant? Would the approach change if the incorrect terminology were more widespread?

  • 2
    I don't want to focus on whether others deem it to be a big problem or not, @gnack, because that's not what the question is about. By using generic terms, we keep the focus on the question, which is how to correct someone's incorrect use of the terminology. With that said, if you post an answer, one way to tackle this would be to cover both scenarios: Say what one should do if the terms aren't that important, and then address what to do if they are important. Hope this helps clarify.
    – jmort253
    Aug 25, 2014 at 6:46
  • 1
    @gnack You should jump in chat. I'm happy to talk tech, just not here as I want to keep this widely applicable to all fields.
    – jmort253
    Aug 25, 2014 at 6:54
  • 2
    "Someone once told me -- possibly a math professor -- that what separates the amateurs from the professionals is that the professionals in a field use correct, accurate terminology." I am fairly certain this is not actually the difference between amateurs and professionals. Aug 25, 2014 at 15:12
  • 1
    Good luck. Maybe you can get the world to say "GNU/Linux" too. Aug 25, 2014 at 15:44
  • 1
    One example that leaps to mind is it is very common to see JavaScript called Java a lot. Clearly not the term involve here, but might help focus answers. Aug 25, 2014 at 23:52

8 Answers 8


My approach is different depending on the person misusing the terms.

First, if it's just intra-departmental, I'll simply respond using the correct term, and see if they pick it up or ask a question. This isn't hard for me, as I (generally) try to avoid using pronouns in conversations, as they (irony noted) end up being misinterpreted. When laying out a technical issue, "It" becomes hard to keep track of.

Second, if it's someone who's customer-facing, I will try to find a private moment, and say, "I don't mean to be pedantic, but I noticed you're misusing the term 'Kefuffle.' I ordinarily wouldn't mention it, but I'd hate for you to be embarrassed by it when you meet with Big Pants Industries next week." Let them ask for information if they wish. If they say, "I don't care," then just revert to step 1.

I am having almost an identical problem in my current position. Our operations group keeps saying, "Test" when they actually mean "Air check." A "Test" is when we actually evaluate a system, including its connection noise and data responses. An "Air check" is where we just send a signal to see if a customer sees our service. (Details unimportant, here.) Drives me up the wall, and other engineers too, but operators keep doing it.

  • 1
    What I tend to do is, if someone misuses the term "Foo", I say "Huh? Oh, Foo-Bar" and then respond to whatever they said. The people who care about using the right terminology will notice your gentle correction and take it on board. The people who don't care won't notice, but it's doubtful you could ever get them to change.
    – mhwombat
    Aug 25, 2014 at 17:24

This is a tough one because it depends on a lot on the following:

  1. How widespread is the misuse?
  2. What kind of personality does the person have?
  3. Is there any risk of a real problem arising from this mixing of terms?

3 is the most important, but I'll start with 1 and 2.

How widespread is the misuse?

If it's just this one person (and a few others in unrelated roles) then you should be clear to just mention it to the individual in a fairly relaxed manner. Don't be smug about it or anything, just something like "So I noticed the marketing people seem to be getting their terms mixed up, there's a mistake just waiting to happen!"

This way you can raise the potential problems and the fact that the mixup is occuring without ever actually correcting the employee directly. They might react with "What problems?" or "Why does it matter?" which gives you the perfect launchpad to explain to them your concerns.

What kind of personality does the person have?

If you feel like the person is pretty easy-going and professional then you shouldn't have any trouble with the above approach, or even by being more blunt. A more blunt approach could be: "Hey I notice that you've been using Term A and Term B interchangeably and I know it seems petty but I find it easier to keep track of things if we can use consistent terminology for the products we work with. Any chance you could do me a solid and try to remember to use the full names just so there's no confusion down the line?"

This way you're communicating your feelings on the matter and addressing it as though it's your preference that they use the full names. This accomplished two things: a) you don't appear to be correcting them at all and b) you concede by implication that they know the correct terms - you don't come across as though you're treating them like an idiot.

Is there any real risk of a problem arising?

This is the most important one. I know you mentioned the two products share some similar functionality but are they similar enough that they're likely to be named in sentences where you could reasonably be confused as to which one is being talked about? For example, let's look at the term "car" and the term "dog". If those two objects had the same noun, lets call them both "cardogs" are there really that many instances where you could become confused? "I saw a cardog at the park today" is pretty clear, as is "I almost crashed my cardog today".

You need to make a judgement call on this one, but if there's no real risk here than consider not worrying about it at all and just get over it! :)

To summarise:

  1. If there's no real risk, don't worry about it.
  2. If there is, and
    1. The person is reasonable and friendly enough, just approach them about it without being confrontational or smug.
    2. The person can be difficult, try addressing it with them by mentioning that you've heard others using the terms incorrectly.

Example: I've been in several workplaces where people refer to the E-business suite used for timecards, procurement and MRP as "Oracle". I've given up trying to explain.

Another example: Before the name "javascript" came into popular use, technical folks furiously tried to explain that "javascript" is a misnomer and has NOTHING to do with Java.

The thing is people need a compact, easy-to-remember name to refer to something that they work with frequently. In the absence of a such a name, people will mindlessly gravitate to whatever gets the point across without regard to technical correctness.

In the case of "javascript", there was NO good alternative given-- "ECMA-scipt" sucks as a name. Similarly with Oracle, "iProcurement", "E-Business suite" suck as names as does "Discoverer" (their miserable tool for graphical reports). As a result the name "oracle" is the only one that sticks.

There are two things you need to convince people of proper usage:

  • A good catchy name. Without that, forget about even trying. It has to be at least as good as the misnomer. A well-crafted acronym will work too.
  • You need to consistently use that name in polished, high-profile communication. In other words, set an example. Spraying the company with an email about nomenclature will NOT WORK.
  • I like these examples. For JavaScript vs Java example, if someone says this in conversation I dont bother correcting because its probably a cue that they dont know too much about it. On the other hand, if there is some official material referring to our products as using some technology X when it should really say Y, then we should correct that and I think everybody would be on board to make that type of communication accurate. As to the verbal communication, I could care less how they say it. That is, I couldn't care less how they say it.
    – Brandin
    Aug 25, 2014 at 10:46

Are you sure that the person knows there is a difference between Foo and Foo-Bar?

If they know the difference, then you might find that a good solution is to explain that you are trying to maintain consistency so that people who don't know the difference won't get confused. You can appeal to their natural elitism: "You and I know there's a difference, but that's because we're in the know, awesome people. We need to help people who aren't as knowledgeable as we are."

Otherwise, explaining that there are two different things that have similar names may be enough to correct the person's usage without embarrassing them. You can do this empathetically: "You know what bugs me? Apple's Foo product and Intel's Foo-Bar product have such similar names that really smart people get them confused frequently. So you can imagine how long it took someone like me to remember which name went with which thing."

And third, if you don't know if they know the difference, you can present it entirely neutrally in a request for clarification:

I'm sorry, I missed that last bit. Did you say Foo, the browser engine, or Foo-Bar, the application runtime?

Or something similar, which has the added benefit of demonstrating why it's important to use the right name—obviously the incorrect term has caused confusion.

We have a similar problem with the way business refers to new systems by legacy names. I was advised to not fight that fight when I started, but it sounds like you have legit grounds (potential system confusion) for advocating for proper naming.

  • For some people -- the end users -- who are using products built with Foo-Bar, I'm sure they don't know the difference and are just reiterating what they hear. But I suspect they're repeating what they hear from the developers of the app, who may or may not know the difference if they never directly worked with Foo but only Foo-Bar. Moreover, I like your example, as it calls it out without being snide. They say when in doubt, it's best to ask questions.
    – jmort253
    Sep 11, 2014 at 2:58
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    @jmort253 A consultant who I respect highly taught me that the best recourse is often to do "your best Columbo impression": Play dumb and let them explain it to you.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 11, 2014 at 3:00

I have worked in several settings, from large companies to startups, where technical precision was a critical success factor. I've seen what happens when executives misunderstood things, and what happens when they understood things.

The notorious Java / Javascript confusion once, in my experience, caused a wasteful detour by somebody trying to buy a license for the wrong technology. (I should send that one to the daily wtf, I know.)

For my part, this has made me into a stickler for getting the jargon right. If you do what I did, you'll become known, and grudgingly respected, as the local pedant: the one who insists on accuracy. It's a good reputation to have.

It's worth investing getting the jargon right, if only because it helps new people become productive more quickly. Here are some suggestions for doing that.

Be precise in your email and memo writing. Always define three-letter acronymns (TLAs) the first time you use them.

Create a formal company glossary. This can be part of a style guide, or an appendix to a reference manual, or a standalone online document. If this can be done in cooperation between design and marketing departments, it's best.

Assign the task of maintaining the glossary to a technical writer or technical editor.

Let everybody in the company know about the existence of glossary (including! the executives, lawyers, contract specialists, purchasing people, etc.)

If possible, make editing services available for external written material (web site, user guides, contracts, etc) that can ensure adherence to the glossary.

  • This person was an executive. (The company eventually failed.)
    – O. Jones
    Aug 25, 2014 at 14:35
  • Hindsight didn't save that company. Educating the bozo executives the board hired probably wouldn't have either. The question is about the future, not the past.
    – O. Jones
    Aug 25, 2014 at 15:54

Since it is one person and you don't want to sound like a "know-it-all", ask for clarification in either a private email or conversation. They may not realize it is an error or that it can sound confusing. Maybe they'll decide it just doesn't matter. Hopefully, if this person continues to misuse the term, at least you'll know what he means and no further damage could occur.

Otherwise, all of this is a matter of how you relate to this person or what everyone else perceives you. If you find yourself constantly having to correct others on technical terms, you may want to pick your battles and hold off on this one.

You're a programmer, so you know it depends.

  • I also think it is important to not broadcast this error because that may focus on the few who made the mistake. If it becomes wide-spread, then you can email everyone to have some consensus on the usage of the term to make sure clients don't get a mixed message.
    – user8365
    Aug 25, 2014 at 18:04

Programmers do have the tendency to over-correct others, especially other non-technical people. In general, it's best to force yourself to abstain doing it for 2 reasons: it breaks the natural flow of the conversation and it actually does come off as being a bit arrogant.

Now, in this case, we're probably not talking about a simple and harmless conversation, like your uncle asking details about what you do for a living.

In your case, a misuse of an important term in a professional context does bring with it significant ramifications, like people purchasing the wrong product or communicating it wrongly to (potential) customers. This is amplified because people do have a hard time letting go of terminology they got used to. As a side-note, my coworkers all have such a habit and it sounds really weird when you hear it the first few times. So it's not at all uncommon to have such a problem.

Now, on to how this might be corrected:

First of all, unlike many other situations, don't be afraid to correct someone in public regarding this issue. In general, people should not feel embarrassed about something like this.

Second, do it as often as you can. People will get a little annoyed by it. So, to counteract the balance back in your favour, iterate how important it is to use the term correctly. Pick a few short and relevant examples on what might go wrong in such a situation. In extreme cases, VERY bad things can happen with such miscommunication; like the example mentioned here:

NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency's team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation, according to a review finding released Thursday.

Third, if the term is used incorrectly in some wikis or some internal documentation of the company, then try your best to correct it there as well. Yes, except for new hires, people rarely read those; but it's good way to stop it from spreading among those new hires. Also, it's possible chunks from that documentation will get copy-pasted into other documentation, parts of which may end up outside of the company's servers (like clients).

  • 2
    I don't think anyone will lose money over this, but I also think that not paying attention to one detail makes it more likely that other, more important details may be overlooked. Plus, there's the confusion factor that someone might face if -- for instance -- they were looking at the Foo forum for answers to a Foo-Bar question.
    – jmort253
    Aug 24, 2014 at 21:58

Send a memo to everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - that:

  1. states the issue - No, "FOO" is NOT the same as "FOO BAR" and "FOO" is the correct appellation

  2. states why the distinction is important to the company and why they can't afford confusing one for another.

  3. requests that everyone cooperates, and that you are available to answer any follow up questions.

If you don't have a rep as "arrogant" before you send your email, your email is not going to do anything to create that impression. If you do have a rep as "arrogant" before you send your email, your rep will be just as bad before you send your email as after it :) In other words, your email is not going to change anything.

From the tenor of your post, I am making the easy deduction that you're not the type of individual who thrives on sharing the knowledge while maximizing the other person's feeling of intellectual inferiority and self-worthlessness. So I am definitely not worried about you coming across as arrogant. If you do come across as arrogant, that's because you fully intended it in the first place :)

  • 1
    I guess I should clarify that I've only heard one person outside of development use the term incorrectly, so it's possible it's not as widespread as I may make it seem. If it's still in the early stages, would you still suggest an email, or would a casual, as-an-aside conversation work best?
    – jmort253
    Aug 24, 2014 at 21:55
  • 1
    @jmort253 I would say start with an unprompted email, because you want to reach as many people as possible and you will want to know who is not paying attention to your message. The next escalation, if it becomes necessary, might be coordinating with the managers to make an announcement at a staff meeting with the same email as follow-up. I prefer that you have the managers and team leaders work top down rather than you pulling anyone aside - it might be too much work, there may be too many of them, you have other work that needs to get done, and you don't want to come across as a pest :) Aug 24, 2014 at 22:05
  • @VietnhiPhuvanmail Have you ACTUALLY attempted that? If so, you should tell us the result.
    – teego1967
    Aug 25, 2014 at 10:48
  • @teego1967 I do that all the time, and as a senior level/team lead and resident subject matter expert, I am expected to share the knowledge and make the necessary technical corrections. Otherwise, my employers aren't getting their money's worth. This is part of my job. What tragedy do you think was going to befall me? Aug 25, 2014 at 10:57
  • @VietnhiPhuvanmail, given that you project an image of speaking your mind without hesitation, I would think that you'd provide an example of where this has worked rather than just "foo" vs "foo-bar". I am skeptical that an unprompted, company-wide email about anything can be effective unless it is directly and substantially relevant to each recipient.
    – teego1967
    Aug 25, 2014 at 12:16

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