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What terms should I put in my termbase? This is one of the biggest questions terminology practitioners ask themselves. No matter how well designed your termbase is or how well written your definitions are, if you are not documenting the right terms your termbase will not give you the benefits you are looking for.

So, what terms belong in a termbase? In some ways, the sky’s the limit. Anything that is “useful” to the development or delivery of your products or services could be a candidate for your termbase. Obviously, this is not practical, so where to start?

There are some key factors to consider when deciding how much terminology work you need to do, or how big of a terminology database you should be aiming for: 

First, ask yourself if you are going to need depth or breadth. Do you need deep documentation of a few subject areas, or a high-level coverage of many different subject areas? Second, determine which terms and concepts have caused problems in the past. If there were particular topics that generated a higher than usual number of support calls or customer complaints, this could be a good place to start.

When it comes to prioritizing terms, I like to recommend a top-down approach. Here are a few high-level considerations to help you focus your terminology efforts where they matter most.

Safety of customer: The most important terms are those that could affect the safety of your customer or employees. When the wrong terms are used, the product user could be endangered. Examples: Terms related to pharmaceutical prescriptions, safety equipment on an oil rig, or assembly of landing gear on an airplane.

Survival of company: Once you have ensured that no one will lose life or limb, it makes sense to move on to those terms that protect your company. These would include terms related to regulatory requirements in your industry or patents that you own. When the wrong terms are used it could result in liability suits or loss of intellectual property.

Survival of product: Terms in this category are concepts created by your company. Using them correctly protects your brand and trademarks and helps strengthening your market share. Examples: High-level product names and registered company trademarks.

Company specific: You want to make sure that you manage the terms that establish you as an industry leader and set you apart from the competition. These would be terms that are related to your products or services, or terms that you use with a non-standard meaning. Examples: Descriptive names of features or services below the branding level.

Industry specific: You also want to make sure you are using the key terminology for your industry correctly. These include terms from vertical industries or areas where experts (outside of your company) agree on a certain set of terms. Examples: Accounting, automotive, biology, etc.

Efficiency: This category covers everything else that may need additional information or standardization. It could be high-frequency technical terms or difficult terms where documenting and managing these terms will reduce errors or queries. If you translate your products or documents into other languages, this category also covers those terms that may pose translation challenges or which may need standardization in one or more languages.

Once you have determined what types of concepts and terms to put into your termbase, you may wonder: Where’s the best place to start? There really is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The basic advice is to start as early as possible with the superordinate terms, meaning those basic terms required to understand other terms. The definition of one difficult term might be the key allowing you to easily define dozens, or hundreds, of other terms based on that definition. For example, if your company specializes in watchmaking parts the definition of escapement allows you to differentiate between lever escapement, pin pallet escapement, and anchor escapement, amongst others, as well as between the different tools required to work with them.

Remember, terminology management takes time, and some terminology management is better than none. By carefully prioritizing your efforts you ensure you get the most return on the time you invest in terminology work.