Using and abusing technical words   Recently updated !


Good writers use words precisely. We know that we may lose things if we loose them. We know it’s a sad and messy occasion when someone literally explodes. Technical terms can be trickier to get right. They have complex definitions which not everyone understands. But they’re precise definitions, and it’s a shame to throw that precision away. Sometimes, too, people use those words to appear precise when they aren’t. That’s just another kind of imprecision. Let’s look at a few ways writers fall short of the accuracy which tech talk ought to have.

Google (verb)

If you have some actual reason for promoting Google, then by all means tell people to “google.” You can also tell them to “microsoft” or to “apple” if that’s what you’re promoting. But unless someone’s paying you to do it, why give Google free advertising? There are lots of other search engines, and personally I’d rather not add to Google’s information about me. I’ve recently written about research using DuckDuckGo, so why not tell people to “duck,” or perhaps to “startpage”? Or better yet, just advise them to do a Web search, and let them decide for themselves.

Exponential (applied to a single number)

Saying that one number is “exponentially larger” than another has no meaning at all. For any numbers x and y that are greater than 1, you can pick an exponent z such that xy = z. Some writers must think it sounds “power-ful,” but it’s just silly.

Algorithm

An algorithm is a procedure for computing a result. If the result isn’t defined, there can’t be an algorithm for it. At best there’s an algorithm for an informed guess. Some companies like to call everything they do algorithmic, to give it an appearance of precision.

If we believe the popular media, there are algorithms that calculate what you want to read, whom you should friend, even what you think. The truth is that they can’t be calculated, at least not with vastly more data than is available. Everyone knows this, but people are afraid to disparage the computer gods.

Virus (the computer kind)

Back in the eighties, bits of code that could replicate themselves from one computer to another across a network became a problem. Like biological viruses, they’d insert themselves into software on one machine, and from there replicate themselves to as many machines as they could reach.

Software viruses still show up occasionally, but the real problems are mostly Trojan Horses and worms. Symantec has a good explanation of the differences among worms, viruses, and Trojans. The difference between viruses and worms is basically that a worm is an independent file and a virus operates as part of a file that already exists. There could be a case for grouping these both as viruses, but Trojan Horses are a completely different animal, not at all virus-like.

Does it matter?

A rule for software that reads and writes computer files is: Be forgiving when reading but strict when writing. This rule applies to writers as well. Language changes, and we can understand people when they use language imprecisely. But when we’re creating text, it’s our job to use the right word, not the almost right word. This is especially true when we’re using language from precise fields like science and technology. There’s more bad writing than good writing in the world, but we can each raise the level a little by paying careful attention to the words we use.

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