Semantics in Total Cost Management

Semantics in Total Cost Management

Paper presented to the ICEC World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, October 2016

Ing. Gianluca di Castri, DIF, EIE/ICEC.A

International Cost Engineering Council – Director, Region II (Europe & Middle East)

Italian Association for Total Cost Management (AICE) – Past President


The paper focuses on some words that, albeit having the same etymology, assume a different meaning from one language to another: reference is made to English and Italian, together with some other Latin languages. Notwithstanding the fact that we are normally, in any business relationship, speak and write in English, in a lot of cases we are doing so with the mental filter of our mother tongue, namely we are using the English word with the meaning the same word has in our own language, and this can be cause of misunderstandings and confusion. 

Majority of the words taken into consideration are related to our profession such as “project”, “controls”, “management”, “engineer”, “design” and so on.  

Keywords: semantics, cost, management, engineering, project, controls, profession.

1        Foreword

There are different definitions of the word “semantics”. In this paper, we accept the definition found in Merriam Webster[i]: “the study of meanings: the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development” with the addition of “the study of different meaning that words, equal on etymological point of view and lexically corresponding, have in different languages”.

The earth of the matter is that words, that are lexically corresponding, not necessarily are semantically equivalent: they can have different meaning either in different languages or in the same language, in different time or in different social or cultural society. The relationship between a term and its meaning is not stable, neither through time nor through space, discipline and other contexts.

In fact, the relationship between a term and its meaning is changeable and unstable over time, as well as moving from one discipline to another: in other words, the same term used in different historical periods can have considerably different meanings and even among contemporaries, the same word can take on meanings or shades of meaning quite different depending on the subject or scientific discipline in which the term is used and the ideological structure of the user.

A synthetic definition could be “the branch of linguistics that studies the change of the meaning of the words through time and space”[ii] .

This is why the philosophes as well as the theologians of the Middle Ages put, at the beginning of their text, the explications of the meaning of the main terms they were to use. We do the same when we put the glossary among the first articles of a contract, a standard, a specification.

Furthermore, as far as we are concerned, in several cases there is a confusion between the word used for defining a “profession” and the word used to describe the related discipline or disciplines, namely the body of knowledge as well as of competences that are needed for the profession itself. This becomes more complicated where the profession is subject to standard or regulations, as well as in case the use of some titles is protected by the law, that is quite normal in Civil Law countries.

For a better understanding of the meaning of a word, in all aspects, we must start from its origin, either lexically and etymologically, or taking into consideration the original meaning in the language where the word is born.

The main reference of this paper is to English as well as to Italian words, however some reference shall be made to other languages and Latin, Greek as well as other etymologies shall be mentioned.

The paper is only limited to the analysis of some words commonly used in Total Cost Management as well as in other branch of the whole “project profession”.

It is worthy to make some considerations about the different translation of some words related to our profession in several languages[iii]:

The following must be noted:

  1. Ingegneria Economica in Italian has a wider meaning than the English “Total Cost Management”.
  2. The term “Cost Engineering” is normally translated in Italian as Ingegneria dei Costi, however this a term difficult to explain to Italians.
  3. On the other side, Project Finance is normally translated in Italian as Finanza di Progetto or Finanza Strutturata while the term Ingegneria Finanziaria seems to have a negative meaning, due to how the term has been used in television and other media.
  4. Project controls in English has a wider meaning than controllo in Italian and contrôle in French, where it would be probably more suitable the word maîtrise.
  5. In military terminology, both in English and Italian, “command” and “controls” have a different meaning.
  6. The correct word monizione for “monitoring” is not common in Italian, while  is used the word monitoraggio that is actually a loan of a Latin word through the English language.

Then the first challenge should then be to issue a multilingual glossary of the  terms used in the project profession in the main languages (not limited to the European languages), starting from the work already performed by AFITEP in year 2000; further works on terminology have been done by private companies such as FIAT, Snamprogetti (belonging to ENI group), PM Forum, PMA Europe Ltd. and others. Those works could be used for reference, together with the glossaries (in English) of the AACE International, PMI and others.

The work done by AFITEP is quite complete in French, German, English, Spanish and Portuguese; it needs to be updated as well as to be completed  with other languages, such as Italian, Arabic and Chinese.


Project management & controls: definitions

A definition of project management could be “application of knowledge, competences and methodology to the management of a complex project, in order to keep the project within the given limits (scope, time, resources or costs)”.

On the other side, project controls definition by the AACE International is “management action, either preplanned to achieve the desired result or taken as a corrective measure prompted by the monitoring process”. Project controls are mainly concerned with the metrics of the project, such as quantities, time, cost, and other resources; however, also project revenues and cash flow can be part of the project metrics under control.

In reality, both terms define a profession that is an application of quite the same body of knowledge. In board terms, we could define the project profession as the comprehensive group of professions related to any project, starting from the idea and the feasibility study and following the whole life cycle: designers, project managers, project controllers, planners, cost engineers and so on.

In the same way, the legal profession includes for lawyers, solicitors, barristers, notaries as well as the medical profession includes for surgeons, cardiologists, oncologists, etc.


2        Some words used in TCM profession



The word originates from the Latin verb proicio, that means to throw forward, proiectum is the neutral past participle, meaning “that has been thrown forward”, from there the Italian words proiettile (projectile, bullet, shell) and progetto (project).

There is then a correspondence between English project and Italian progetto.  However, in Italian the word progetto normally refers only to the paperwork resulting from the activities performed by   the engineer or the architect, such as the production of a group of drawings, specifications and bills of quantities at different levels of detail, then corresponding to English design and engineering.

The word can also be referred to personal matter, without any relationship with engineering.

To this point, it should be noted that the English word “project” is someway broader, since it is not limited to defining an idea expressed in an aggregate of drawings and specifications, but is extended to the whole of the activities from the procurement of financial assets procurement of materials, construction and testing.

We then have words that are lexically equivalent while semantically different, the risk in that a native Italian speaker, when speaking in English, can confuse the meaning. See the table of correspondences here below


Project Opera
Design Progetto, progettazione


Programme, plan, schedule


The word “programme” or “program” originates from late Latin “programma, -atis” that is a loan from greek  πρόγραμμα, -ατος, from verb προγράϕω, “write before”. The original meaning refers to a written document with a statement of something the author is willing to do in the future.

The word “plan” originates from latin planum, the original meaning is referred to a flat surface. Due to the use of sheets of white paper, the meaning was translated to the drawing itself, and then to a “detailed and systematic formulation of a large scale programme”. Further derivatives are “planning” in English and pianificazione in Italian, that is probably due to a re-import from English to Italian.

The word “schedule” originates from latin “schedula”, whose original meaning is slip of paper or papyrus, then card. Then the meaning was translated, in English, to a written list of actions to be done, the corresponding word schedula is seldom used in Italian.


In our terminology, the correspondence is as below

Planning Pianificazione
Scheduling Programmazione
Implementing Attuazione
Programme Programma


It’s easy to understand how the word “programme” can be source of ambiguity in Italian as well as in English spoken by Italian people.



The word originates from French contrôle, from contre rôle or contrerolle, whose original meaning was counter-register, namely the copy of a register. The English meaning then diverged from the original meaning, that was kept in French as well as in Italian.

As a matter of fact, while the English term identifies a procedure that is active during the whole life of the project, comparing from time to time the achieved to the planned, defining both efficiency and effectiveness and from then calculating an estimation to complete together with relevant deviations in order to identify corrective actions, if any, the French and the Italian word are relative to a check performed after the works is completed, to verify its conformity to the contract and to point out any difference. When project controls have been introduced in Italy the Italian word controllo has actually assumed the double meaning, while in French the term used has been maîtrise de projet.



The word originates from the Latin verb moneo, whose derived names monitio and monitor are referred to an advisory action as well to the action of reminding about action to be done or to expiry dates. In modern terminology, for “project monitoring” we mean an action that is quite similar to project controls, albeit performed on behalf of other stake-holders in an advisory way, without any power of interference. Paradoxically, the word monitoring has been reimported to Italian as monitoraggio, while the correct term should be monizione, that is actually used in legal documents but never in professional papers.



The word originates from latin verb audio, whose derived name auditor is referred to a disciple as well as to a trainee, the word was used in Italian (uditore) to define the trainee in judiciary career, that was acting as assistant to the judge in charge.

In English, the meaning has been “assistant”, that is actually coherent with the original one. The verb “to audit” with the meaning of “examination or verification of accounting books” actually derives from Latin “audientia”, Castilian audiencia, as the act of hearing, referred to the hearing of subjects from a governor or from a judge. This meaning has been then re-imported from English to Italian, keeping the word as it was, while it would be better to use other words, such as vigilanza.


Total Cost Management

In the majority of Common Law countries, Cost Engineering and Project Management have had a separate development, like two fully independent disciplines. The relevant professions are separate, like in England, in the majority of the Commonwealth countries, in the United States of America.

In countries belonging to the Civil Law group of countries, namely in most of countries of continental Europe,  the profession of Cost Engineer, Planning Engineer and Project Manager have had a common and sometimes confused development. This can also be understood from terminology: while in English speaking countries we have different definitions for Cost Engineering, Project Management, Planning Engineering, Quantity Surveying, Construction Economics in Latin countries the overall term of Ingegneria Economica (Ingenieria Económica, Financiera y de Costos) has been used since the beginning. This overall concept has been accepted in 1998 also by the ICEC, as Total Cost Management, whose meaning is corresponding to the meaning of Ingegneria Economica, as far as the different languages will allow the correspondence.

The Total Cost Management (Ingegneria Economica) is a discipline that integrates  cost engineering;  contracting; construction economics;  planning , scheduling, controlling; engineering and project metrics.

It is worthy to point out that, besides being involved in Project Controls, the main field of Total Cost Management is evolving towards lifecycle or capital asset management, investment decision making, profitability and business planning.

It seems that we have several professions insisting on the same body of knowledge, albeit with different competence baselines. Such professions, that are listed here below, are partially overlapping each other and probably some simplification is needed: Project Director, Project Manager, Project Engineer, Project Comptroller, Planning Engineer, Cost Engineer, Contract Engineer, Contract Manager, Programme Manager,  Project Monitoring Consultant, Project   Auditor, Quantity Surveyor, Construction Economist, Asset Manager, Cost Manager.

As far as Total Cost Management is concerned, it would we worthy to introduce a new terminology to cover from one side the discipline and from the other side the profession. A proposal could be to define the discipline as Project Economics and the profession as Project Economist.


3        Conclusions

When moving from a language to another, there is sometimes a semantic difference between words that are lexically equivalent. Furthermore, in any language, the same word can have different meaning when used in different context.

We need to take care, when translating or speaking in a language that is not our mother tongue, even in case we are enough fluent, in order to know exactly the meaning of the words we are saying, to avoid any misunderstanding.

When writing, it is advisable to explain the meaning we are giving to a controversial term, even in case we are writing in our own language, like we are normally doing when writing a contract. Ancient theological books opened any matter with the explicatio terminorum (explanation of terms). The intent was to avoid any possible misunderstanding in the use of terms that may have unique meanings, similar, but also quite different.

It is of paramount importance, however, to realize that there are semantic problems both within the associations as well as between the associations and the market, so that often we say the same thing, but without full mutual understanding. In addition, a fixed point is to safeguard the fact that the profession, although unitary, must preserve the identity of the various components, just as other professions and para- professions are doing.

We believe that, in the near future, the whole project profession shall be internationally represented by a single federation or confederation of all the related professional associations.

This confederation, if the relevant project will go on, will also have some side effects that are described below.

  1. There is, even in the professional environment and even more in industry and in the market, a lack of understanding of the various certifications, so different certifications are considered equivalent, with clear disadvantage for the highest levels of certification: a policy of mutually agreed comparison between the certifications and their levels may help.
  2. The possibility to create certification paths (and hence career paths) with one or more points of contact and transition from one type of certification to another. This means that those who wish, for example, move from ICEC to IPMA certification or from IPMA to ICEC, can obtain that the level reached be recognized instead of starting again from the beginning.
  3. More attention to the training and guidance, an appropriate balance between generality and specialization, increased attention to continuing professional education.
  4. More attention to market trends.



[ii] Semantica est ramus linguisticae quae curat de variatione sensus vocabulorum in tempo et spatio

[iii] As a cultural reference, in Latin we could say: Operis Gestio (project management), Operis Gubernatio (project controls), Inpensarum Gubernatio (cost control)

[iv] Probably, project management and project controls have quite the same body of knowledge, while differentiation exists in competencies and their application to the profession. Total Cost Management, however, has a wider body of knowledge.

Project controls has more to do with project metrics, such as measuring site and complexity of the project, find the right parameters for such measuring (workload in standard man-hours or equivalent units, location factors and other indicators) and controlling (progress, time and costs, find proper indicators for quantity and complexity), find the metric way to identify the completion of the various phases such us mechanical completion, running and reliability test completion, substantial completion, preliminary and final handing over), identify the metrics for contract and claim management and so on.



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