Technical Writing – The Difference Between a Process and a Procedure

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act III, Scene 1, in an argument about how to divide a piece of land, one character says that he’ll “cavil on the ninth part of a hair.” Cavil means to quibble over an unimportant point. Even better, it’s a really annoying and trivial objection. The reason for mentioning this is because there’s often a fine line between caviling and getting it technically right. Here at The Tech Writer’s Tool Kit, the general view is that every word has a specific meaning and no two words ever have exactly the same meaning. Is it a cavil to insist that there’s an important difference between a procedure and a process? They both mean a way to get something done. Is changing a tire a process or a procedure? Did you just go through the (process or procedure) of refinancing your home?

Procedure – The dictionary gives the etymology of procedure as a French word, procédure, from proceder which means to proceed. To proceed is defined, simply, as to go forward and procedure is defined as a manner of proceeding. We have to go beyond simple definition to usage. In American English, the word is used, most often, to designate a unique type of undertaking.

So, we have medical procedure and nomination procedure. A procedure, then, is a single activity, consisting of multiple steps, performed to accomplish a specific outcome. – This is the procedure we use to elect our officers.- The doctor said the procedure is simple enough to be done in his office.- It’s a long and complicated procedure that must be performed carefully.

Process – Starting with the dictionary for the etymology, we do kind of a loop around to find out process comes through Middle English and Old French from Latin prMcdere that means to advance or proceed. Sounds a lot like procedure. But, the definition of process shows a difference. It says a process is a series of actions that bring about a result. In most cases, that result is a completed procedure. The distinction holds up in general usage in a number of fields. For example, we talk about a hair coloring process, events now in process, and processing an order. In Law, process is defined as the whole judicial proceeding (procedure). In Engineering, the steps in changing iron into steel is a process. In Computer Science, it means performing 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 outcome- a process is the series of individual steps within the procedure that is followed to achieve the outcome The difference is that you must follow a process in order to complete a procedure. That would mean that saying, “The process of getting a haircut is boring” doesn’t mean the same as saying, “The procedure of getting a haircut is boring.” It depends on whether you’re saying that the individual steps are boring or the whole operation boring. Two different words: two different meanings? We think so. What about you?

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