After all the exhortations about the importance of language, finally, the Guide has a tool to help you and your colleagues choose a common language. Unlike past work on glossaries, this tool does not start with words that need to be defined, but rather ideas that need to be labeled. So this means some words will go without definition in a glossary developed this way. It will be important to comfort those whose favorite words are not selected – or let them use different words and develop a translation guide (See the Rosetta Stone discussion in Language of Accountability).

A word about the “glossary trap.” Many past publications on accountability, in its various incarnations, have included lengthy glossaries where every conceivable word which might possibly be used is carefully defined. These glossaries sometimes run 10 to 20 pages! The authors appear to think that unless they can account for all the terms of the planning, budgeting and evaluation professions, their framework is somehow incomplete. The problem with this approach is that there are more words in use than there are useful ideas. And since words are just labels for ideas, it’s the ideas that are important, not the words. Good frameworks start with a coherent set of ideas and then offer choices about word labels for those ideas.

The glossary trap derives from the practice of starting with words. Imagine that you are attending an international conference on marine biology. And you notice that the French, Chilean and Japanese delegations each have a different word for humpback whale. You might think that there were in fact three different animals out there in the ocean. But of course there is only one animal with three different labels. The same applies to the concept of “a condition of well-being for children, adults, families and communities.” This idea is called an “outcome” in Vermont, a “result” in Georgia and Missouri, and a “goal” in Oregon – one idea – three different labels.

So always start with a coherent, common sense set of ideas. Keep your glossary as short as possible. Define only the minimum set of terms you need to describe the basic ideas you plan to use. (The language tool offers definitions for over 25 terms and phrases but you do not have to put this many in a printed glossary.) Keep all of the language in the definitions as simple and easy to understand as possible. Plain language and a short, simple set of definitions will go a long way to helping people feel included in, and not excluded from, the work.

MarcA Tool for Choosing a Common Language