Partner with Multiple Meanings

Words have multiple meanings. We have to know the context to know the meaning. And sometimes we have to know more about the person talking to know the meaning they intended.

This is one reason a controlled vocabulary in a work place is a good idea. Communication is hard enough without a single word meaning multiple things to the same person. Magnify that in a group setting and there is every chance someone misunderstood you.

I spotted one of these yesterday, in an out of work context. The word ‘Partner‘.

When you hear someone use the word partner in a sentence it could mean any of these things, and probably a few more:

Personal Relationships

  • You are referring to your husband or wife, but for some reason chose not to use those terms. Maybe you didn’t want to remind someone they aren’t married?
  • You are referring to your long term girlfriend/boyfriend. Your relationship is serious and you haven’t discussed marriage yet. Or you don’t want to get married. You want to communicate commitment, but not lie about being married. Or you don’t want to sound like a teenager while in your 40’s.
  • You are gay and don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

Professional Relationships

  • You work in a company, like a Law firm, where being a Partner is the top job. Here you are referring to your colleagues. This is the job title.
  • You started a business or some other professional endeavour, you are referring to you co-founders or Partners in this endeavour. This is the role.
  • You play tennis and are referring to your doubles partner.
  • A dance partner.
  • There are more …

Notice how at each point above I had to provide more information to define the word. To help you understand what I mean.

Hold that thought.

Then imagine I threw that word into a conversation, in the middle of sentence, and you didn’t know me. It would require effort to know what I meant unless I had provided more context about me, or the situation I am talking about.

This is what happened to me yesterday and this morning. I was the listener and reader.

Listening to a podcast yesterday the interviewee used the word partner in the relationship sense. I took that to mean he isn’t married, but I didn’t know if he was gay, and I doubted why he didn’t say girlfriend. Later in the conversation he referred to ‘she’ and said something else that suggested they are not married. But that clarifying information came later.

Then this morning in a book passage the author was relating a story and used the word again. This time he meant a partner in a professional (lawyer) sense. But I doubted what he meant until they started referring to the court room.

I decided to look up the definition of partner and spotted this one. I guess if I sailed or loved boats I might have known this definition existed.

8. partners, Nautical. a framework of timber round a hole in a ship’s deck, to support a mast, capstan, pump, etc.


My challenge to you is to think about the words you use, and whether you are providing enough context for the recipient to know what you mean.

* The term Controlled Vocabulary comes from the the book How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert. I highly recommend.