Prison or jail? Being consistent with names

One of the things I often discuss in writing training is the need to be consistent with naming.

Whatever name you choose for something at the beginning of the document should be used consistently throughout, so that readers can be sure you’re referring to the same thing. If you’re writing about a review, for example, it’s called ‘a review’ throughout the document; you don’t start referring to it as ‘an evaluation’, ‘a plan’ or ‘a process’.

Here’s an example I heard on the radio recently. The journalist said:

He was sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence with a minimum term of 3 years. His brother was sentenced to 4 years in jail.

My thought process went something like this: one man was sentenced to a prison sentence and his brother was sentenced to jail. What’s the difference? I thought they were the same! Why use different words?

Of course, by the time I’d thought it through, I had missed the end of that story and most of the next one.

Consistency with naming is one thing that can help to lighten the load on readers and listeners. It’s a way of helping readers to keep track of your ideas and understand your intention.

In case you’re interested: The Oxford defines ‘prison’ as a building for the confinement of criminals or those awaiting trial; it defines ‘jail’ as a place for the confinement of people accused or convicted of a crime. (It also gives priority to ‘jail’ rather than ‘gaol.) Again, an interesting difference.