Does the rule "Don't use the same name/word to refer to two different things" have a name, and, if so, what is that name?


8 Answers 8


I don't recall a common name for the rule, but I found two definitions of the situation that you're trying to prevent:

In software, when words have several meanings, this is called overloading. Your rule would be 'avoid overloading names/words'.

Ambiguity is a more general term for the same thing. So the rule could be 'use unambiguous names /words/terms' or 'define your terminology unambiguously'.

  • 2
    A Google search for "ambigous antonym" led me to monosemy (via synonym.com/antonym/ambiguous) Oct 3, 2011 at 19:04
  • 1
    Yes, you could go with "avoid polysemy" if you wanted to go concise. :) Oct 3, 2011 at 19:09
  • +1, thanks much. Overloading is a great word. So, @PatrickMcElhaney, is monosemy.
    – msh210
    Oct 3, 2011 at 20:54
  • Both good terms. I would use overloading for two different concepts having the same reference, and ambiguity when the boundary is uncertain (eg. does "Taxes" include excise, penalties, and fees; or just try asking the Australian Film Commission for their definition of an "Australian film")
    – Erics
    Oct 3, 2011 at 22:33
  • I'd checkmark (accept) this answer or JohnGB's, and chose this one because I happen to like the word overloading.
    – msh210
    Nov 1, 2011 at 23:41

There's no official name, but I like to call it consistency.

It describes it and is clear enough that a special name isn't needed. It also applies to more than just names.

  • 3
    +1. Nielsen's heuristics say: "Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions." Oct 3, 2011 at 20:28
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    "There is no official name" I am pretty sure that in the other 90% of the english language, which most of us don't know, there is a term for this. My answer below is "The act of making words mutually exlusive." Oct 4, 2011 at 15:30
  • -1 Since I could consistently use one word to describe different things. This is not about consistency. Oct 4, 2011 at 15:32
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    @JeroenEijkhof: Oxford dictionary definition of consistent: (adjective) acting or done in the same way over time, especially so as to be fair or accurate.
    – JohnGB
    Oct 6, 2011 at 15:31

There's a precept in About Face summarized as "Make things that are different look different." This seems like a special case of that.

  • So it does. But that doesn't answer my question about a name for the rule. +1, anyway, for the reference.
    – msh210
    Oct 3, 2011 at 20:55

Maybe Terminology standardisation?

In the book Language, culture and communication in contemporary Europe, by Charlotte Hoffmann, she writes:

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  • +1, but that seems to be more about setting independent standards of terminology than about one information provider using the same term for two referents.
    – msh210
    Oct 3, 2011 at 16:51

FWIT, I’ve published a taxonomy of inconsistencies to aid in user performance analysis, but I suspect it isn’t widely known.

Inconsistency within different parts of the same product are internal, while inconsistency between a product and some other reference (e.g., a standard, a legacy product, or a metaphor) are external.

A contradiction is when the same thing has two different usages. An irregularity is when two different things have the same usage.

The “things” above can be symbols, codes, unit use, formats, terms (like your case), abbreviations, and layout (That makes the mnemonic acronym SCUFTAL).

So what you have is an internal terminology contradiction… which, as you probably know, is really bad.

  • What about using the same term for both the noun, and the verb action that produces that noun. For example: scheduling a schedule, programming a programme, cooking a cook^W^W^W.
    – Erics
    Oct 4, 2011 at 8:42

One form of this two-meanings-for-same-term is known as a synecdoche, and is particularly confusing.

  • Part of something is used to refer to the whole thing (pars pro toto), or
  • A thing (a "whole") is used to refer to part of it (totum pro parte), or
  • A specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
  • A general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
  • A material is used to refer to an object composed of that material, or
  • A container is used to refer to its contents.

I was once in a meeting with 6 others discussing a website for a radio station, and only after an hour of confused back and forth did someone stop to ask "when you say 'programme', do you mean the instance of broadcast, or the conceptual ongoing series of broadcasts under that name?".

  • 1
    Another example I've seen: my username/password settings for my online banking is under the heading Account Settings, which is confusing because my online banking account thus contains accounts (the latter are apparently properly known in banking jargon as "arrangements").
    – Erics
    Oct 4, 2011 at 8:38

Mutual exclusivity,
could be applied to this situation. The act of making words mutually exlusive.

(found no good reference to back me up, anyone?)


I would reverse that and say "Do use namespaces". Rather than just telling people what not to do, this provides a solution right away.

  • Sounds good. But that doesn't answer my question about a name for the rule.
    – msh210
    Oct 4, 2011 at 15:26
  • Well my rule could be named 'namespacing', but you're right, I didn't name your rule. Sorry for trying to help. Oct 4, 2011 at 16:05
  • No apology necessary. Thanks for trying. (And I'm not the one who downvoted your answer, FWIW.)
    – msh210
    Oct 4, 2011 at 17:45

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