COVID-19 terminology – social distancing, quarantine or isolation?

Isolation terminology

Photo credit: Inja Pavlić

The spread of COVID-19 has not just disrupted our lives, but also added some new terminology to our daily language. Understanding the meaning of terms like “social distancing”’ or “quarantine” is fundamental to behaving in a way that is safe and responsible.

The terminology around the measures adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19 can be confusing. Though many English speakers use “quarantine” loosely to cover all the following terms, it isn’t a totally accurate description. Uses of the terms vary – and they are also constantly evolving – but here we explain some of the most common ones.


A quarantine separates and restricts the movement of healthy people who may have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. Anyone who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or who travelled to an area where there’s an active outbreak may be asked to quarantine themselves and avoid contact with all other people. If the period – typically 14 days – passes without any sign of symptoms, the person quarantined probably wasn’t infected.

Isolation, self-isolation

If someone tests positive for COVID-19 but isn’t suffering from symptoms serious enough to require hospitalisation, doctors may recommend that they isolate in their own homes and avoid contact with other people. Isolation means separating sick people from healthy people to prevent the spread of disease.

Social distancing

This is intended for people who haven’t had any known exposure to COVID-19; it is meant to slow the transmission of the virus. Social distancing involves avoiding physical contact with, or proximity to, other people. It protects people from possibly getting infected and protects the public from people who are contagious but asymptomatic.

Physical distancing

Some psychologists and social workers concerned with the loneliness that can result from social distancing have encouraged people to use the term “physical distancing” instead. The ideas behind social and physical distancing are the same, but the hope is that by emphasising only the physical aspect of distancing, people will be reminded that maintaining social contact through video conferencing, email, phone calls, and other forms of communication will help them avoid loneliness and isolation. Many companies find online learning with EnglishBusiness helps their employees stay and feel connected.

Sheltering in place

Before it was adapted to the context of COVID-19, the term “shelter in place” was typically used in situations when authorities asked the public to seek protection from storms or other threats by remaining in their own homes.


Much like sheltering in place, a lockdown is an emergency security procedure in which authorities prohibit people from leaving a building. However, a lockdown is in response to a threat such as an active shooter, while sheltering in place is usually in response to natural or environmental threats like a tornado or a chemical spill. The terms are often used interchangeably in the context of COVID-19.

Bonus: “Working from home” or “working remotely” are useful phrases for people who currently can go the office. Both of these are preferable to the phrase “home office”, which is used frequently in German, but will confuse native English speakers.

Note: In times of crisis, clear communication is essential. This is why the EnglishBusiness translation team has extended office hours to Monday – Friday from 08:00 – 20:00.

If you need fast and precise translations of your press releases or HR communication, contact our project managers!

Kayla Hirsch

Kayla Hirsch
Translation Editor & Consultant

Kayla is from the Southeast of the US, where she earned degrees in political science and German studies. She loves traveling, and she lived in Washington, D.C., Berlin and Nuremberg before she decided to settle in Hamburg. In her free time, she’s usually watching films or reading; at EnglishBusiness she’s an expert on translation and proofreading. You’ll find articles from her here on all things linguistics and written communication.

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