Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

One of the biggest misnomers about accountants is that our work is all about numbers. While it is true that we work with numbers, the reality is that much of our work is about reading and writing. We read service agreements to determine if there is an implied lease as part of the arrangement that needs to be accounted for separately. We read stock compensation arrangements to determine key data points like grant date, the share price, and when the shares vest to determine how much and when compensation should be recognized. And we write reports trying to communicate what the numbers really mean in carefully chosen words.

Because we deal with words so often, accountants can get cranky when they see words used carelessly like the press (and in some cases, government officials) has been doing lately. I hear phrases like shelter in place, stay at home and quarantine used almost interchangeably, but that is dangerous in today’s environment. Here are the actual definitions of these phrases.

Shelter in Place – Stay wherever you are at the moment the order is in effect. This means if you are at a drug store, you stay inside the drug store. If you are at your office, you stay in the office. If you are home, you stay in your house.

Quarantine – Isolate yourself from everyone else. This means you can’t leave the quarantine zone, whether that is a room, a house or a city.

Stay at Home – This one is simpler, yet more complex. Basically, the idea is to get home and stay there. The order may allow you to leave at certain times or for certain activities (essential work, getting food, etc.), but the idea is to stay at home and don’t leave unless absolutely necessary.

If you don’t think the right words matter, think about someone interpreting shelter in place as stay at home when a tornado is hitting the ground. That kind of misinterpretation could kill someone, which is why it is important to use the right words every time. If you use the wrong words, especially use them incorrectly over and over, people may lose sight of the actual definition of the phrase when it’s a matter of life and death.

We can’t control other people using the wrong words, but at least we can set the right example. Use the right words and for now, stay at home even if that’s not what the press is saying.

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