Technical writing: the difference between a process and a procedure

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act III, Scene 1, in a discussion of how to divide a piece of land, a character says that he will “ponder about one-ninth of a hair.” Cavil means to object on an unimportant point. Even better, it’s a really annoying and trivial objection. The reason for bringing this up is because there is often a fine line between brooding over and getting it technically correct. Here in The Tech Writer Toolkit, the overview is that every word has a specific meaning and no two words have the exact same meaning. Is it a qualm to insist that there is an important difference between a procedure and a process? They both signify a way of doing something. Is changing a tire a process or a procedure? Have you just gone through the (process or procedure) of refinancing your home?

Procedure – The dictionary gives the etymology of procedure as a French word, procedure, to proceed which means to proceed. Proceeding is simply defined as moving on, and procedure is defined as a way of proceeding. We have to go beyond the simple definition to use. In American English, the word is most often used to designate a single type of business. So, we have medical procedure and nomination procedure. Therefore, a procedure is a single activity, consisting of several steps, that are performed to achieve a specific result. – This is the procedure we use to elect our officers – The doctor said the procedure is simple enough to be performed in his office – It is a long and complicated procedure that must be performed with care.

Process: Starting with the dictionary for etymology, we do a kind of loop to find out that the process comes through Middle English and Old French from Latin prMcdere which means to move on or on. It sounds a lot like a procedure. But the process definition shows a difference. It says that a process is a series of actions that produce a result. In most cases, that result is a complete procedure. The distinction is maintained in general use in various fields. For example, we talked about a hair coloring process, events now in progress, and processing an order. In Law, process is defined as the entire judicial process (procedure). In Engineering, the steps to transform iron into steel are a process. In Computer Science, it means to perform operations on data, which is done by a processor.

Based on general usage, then: – a procedure is a total operation – the complete set of actions – that results in some desired result – a process is the series of individual steps within the procedure that are followed to achieve the result. The difference is that you must follow a process to complete a procedure. That would mean that saying “The process of cutting your hair is boring” does not mean the same as saying “The process of cutting your hair is boring.” It depends on whether you are saying that the individual steps are boring or that the whole operation is boring. Two different words: two different meanings? We think so. And you?

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