February 21, 2010

The meaning of 'organization'

A little while ago I was faced with a writing challenge. I had to use the word 'organization' in two different meanings in a single document. As I got stuck, I asked a renowned colleague - Tom Graves - for help. On his blog, Tom posted the following response to my question. As I figured it would be interesting for a broader audience we decided to cross-post.



Had an interesting question come in today from one of my Dutch colleagues, Bas van Gils:

I have to write a document and I’m kinda stuck. The issue with the document is that I want to make a distinction between ‘the organization as in: “the way in which some system / department / enterprise is organized” and “the organization as in: the legal entity”. I’ve had this issue before and I can’t figure out how to deal with this properly in documents. It just feels awkward to say Organization (with capital) for meaning one and organization (without) for meaning two…

Any thoughts?

This is a real doozy of a problem that really shows up the limitations of English as a language. It’s hard enough for native English speakers to resolve, let alone those who only use English as a business-language…

I ain’t no linguistics specialist, but as I see it, the respective contexts for the two meanings are as follows:

  • Meaning 1 (’the way something is organized’): a nounal expression of the verb ‘to organize’, moving from the present-participle (’organizing’) to the adjectival past-participle (’organized’) to the verb-as-condition (’organization’) [there'll be a proper linguistic term for this nounal form, but I haven't a clue what it is :-) ]
  • Meaning 2 (’the legal entity’): a label for an abstract entity that is structured (’organized’) in some defined way

To me, Meaning 1 is still more related to the verb, a temporary condition of something dynamic (”the act of organizing”), whereas Meaning 2 is definitely a noun, something static. In Meaning 1, the structure could change – the outcome of a ‘reorganization’ – and it would still be ‘organization’; whereas Meaning 2 is defined and delimited by its legal boundaries, so if those were to change, the previous ‘the organization’ would cease to exist.

[A quick check at AudioEnglish.net throws up a total of seven meanings: Bas's 'Meaning 1' is somewhere between their 1 ("a group of people who work together") and 2 ("an organized structure for arranging or classifying"), whereas Bas's 'Meaning 2' is probably closest to their 3 ("the persons or committees or departments etc who make up a body for the purpose of administering something"). The built-in thesaurus in MS Word isn't much help, either. Overall, it's all too obvious that English is a confusing mess. :-( ]

I would probably try to juggle the phrasing so that I can avoid having to put the two meanings together in the same sentence, but I can see plenty of circumstances in which there’s no way to get round it.

If I did have to use both meanings in the same sentence, without any other option, I might well use Bas’s capitalisation kludge, though I would capitalise Meaning 2 rather than Meaning 1: “the organization of the Organization”. But as Bas says, it’s awkward and ugly: and whilst, to a native English speaker, the alternative uncapitalised “the organization of the organization” would probably be clear enough, it might not make sense to native speakers of other languages.

But as Bas again indicates, it gets messy when we try to distinguish the two meanings once we’ve bundled them together. And going back to the present-participle – “the organizing of the organisation” – is probably uglier still, although technically correct in English.

So the short answer is that I don’t see any easy way round this one. Sorry… :-(

Anyone else have any better suggestions?

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