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November/December 2010

What Are Words For?

The Proper Use of Terminology in ASTM Standards

On one of his early albums, comedian Steve Martin sagely noted that “Some people have a way with words while others ... er, uh, not have way, I guess.”

Having a way with words — that is, knowing precisely what words mean and how words are being used — is essential for developers of ASTM standards. This is why Part E of Form and Style for ASTM Standards focuses on the development and use of terminology in standards.

According to Part E, ASTM standard terminology is written to promote three objectives:

  • Precise understanding and interpretation of ASTM standards;
  • Standardization of terminology in standards, reports and other technical writings; and
  • Explanation of the meanings of technical terms for the benefit of those not conversant with them.

An important distinction made in E2.1 is the difference between definitions of terms and definitions of terms specific to a standard:

  • A definition of a term refers to a term that has a meaning more specialized than its common dictionary explanation, is used by two or more subcommittees within a committee, or appears in several standards.
  • A definition of a term specific to a standard refers to a term that is limited in application to the standard in which it needs to be defined.

Definitions of Terms and Definitions of Terms Specific to a Standard appear in separate subsections within the “Terminology” section of a standard. While definitions of terms would appear in a committee’s general terminology standard, definitions of terms specific to a standard, due to their limited application, would not.

The most important decision a committee may need to make regarding terminology is when to develop a definition and when this is not necessary. Section E3 offers guidelines in both directions. E3.2 and its subsections note that a definition should be written:

  • When a term used in a standard is essential to the standard’s interpretation and application;
  • When a term is not adequately defined in common language; and
  • When using qualitative adjectives and nouns that could be taken to denote or connote an absolute, unqualified or unconditional property or capability, such as “waterproof” or “stainless.”

E3.3, on the other hand, details when not to develop a definition:

  • When a term is adequately defined in a dictionary;
  • When a term has a well-recognized authoritative meaning, such as terms described in the International System of Units;
  • When a term is defined acceptably for the committee’s purposes in the ASTM Dictionary of Engineering Science and Technology or the committee’s terminology standard; and
  • When a term that meets the committee’s needs has been defined in a technical standard of another committee or subcommittee.

Once a committee has decided to write a definition, it will need to understand the form the definition should take; Section E4 describes this. A good definition describes the essential characteristics of a term and does not include irrelevant details. The order in which a term and the elements of its definition should appear is also described.

The elements of a term (including abbreviations, symbols and parts of speech, among others) are fully described in Section E5, while Section E6 describes the use of symbols, acronyms and abbreviations as terminology within a standard.