Before going any further, let’s make things clear. If you are looking for a way to tell apart a word and a term, or if you think these two “words” mean the same thing, I encourage you to read “Words, Terminology, and Translation“.
Now that you know what a term is, let us move on.
Choosing a term is no small matter. A word with “a nice ring to it”, a colourful expression, or that new word you read (or heard of) the previous week might not be the one that suits your task.
Here is how to find out if your terminological choice was the right one. Ask yourself these simple questions:
Is it accurate?
Do your homework and look up the definition of the word in a dictionary, do not rely on your memory.
For instance, many of you might think that a bottom line and a profit are synonymous and refer to the same concept. Actually, they do not. A bottom line might or might not be a profit; a bottom line allows a nil or negative amount, whereas a profit is, by nature, a positive amount (otherwise it is a loss).Your memory might not be reliable. Most of us learn and store information by association (mnemonics, feelings, sequence, locations, etc.) and we retrieve information the same way, by association. You know the times you look for your keys and you have to retrace your steps backwards? Exactly! How many times did you have to start from square one before finding your keys? In other words, you face high odds of quickly losing your way.
Double-checking is a writer’s (and a translator’s) best work habit.
Does it maintain coherence in your text?
The right term does not clash with the content of your message.
Nobody would think of using a tennis ball to go skiing. In the same way, if you write about football and yards, stay away from “bases” and “bats”. These two sports might have commonalities, but they are not a perfect match. They play in different fields (pun intended), and so do terms. Ensure that your text does not end up being in a muddle; double-checking represents your best defense.
Is it ambiguous or vague?
By definition, a term clearly defines a concept or an object, it brings precision to your text – otherwise any common word would have done the job.
If the chosen term does not bring clarity, precision, or significance to your text, the odds are you have to revise your text and revisit your reference books to find the right term. Remember, all synonyms are not necessarily equal. If you cannot find the accurate term, ask experts (either an expert in the field or a terminologist).
The goal of any piece of communication is to convey a message. A message that cannot be understood by the readers fails to achieve its purpose. Terms were not created for pedantic displays, they were created for precision. If the terms do not reach the readers, either offer your readers the tools to understand your text (e.g. footnotes, in-text definition, or lexicon) or rewrite your piece.
A message unsuccessfully conveyed leaves both the author and the reader feeling their failure.