About the Author

Chris Shiflett

Hi, I’m Chris: entrepreneur, community leader, husband, and father. I live and work in Boulder, CO.


Technical Vocabulary and Grammar

I sometimes wonder why people feel so compelled to use technical terms when talking about computers, even when they don't know what the terms mean. In my experience, those who know the least about a particular topic use the most complicated vocabulary when discussing it. I considered compiling a list of the popular ones, but since I'm lazy and have a blog, I decided to blog about it instead. :-) Feel free to add to the list.

For some reason, there are multiple terms used for a computer. What's wrong with computer? I guess it doesn't sound cool enough, but drives and processors do. For the record:

  • Hard Drive != Computer
  • CPU != Computer

I'm sure this list could go on, but those are the two I see misused all the time. To me, they're just important computer parts.

Another problem is when technical terms closely resemble other, more common words. For example, have you ever had someone try to discuss object-orientated programming or tell you that a feature has been depreciated? I have. For the record:

  • Orientated != Oriented
  • Depreciated != Deprecated

(Spell checkers are partially to blame for these, because I think many people rely on them to determine when they've chosen the right combination of characters.)

I'm no grammar expert, so I'm sure I make my share of mistakes. Sometimes, what's considered correct just doesn't sound right. For example, why must companies be considered plural? When I think about a company, I always use a singular verb:

I wonder what Brain Bulb is up to these days.

Technically, I think this is wrong (anyone know for sure?), but I just can't bring myself to use a plural verb:

I wonder what Brain Bulb are up to these days.

Doesn't that sound weird? Another one is data, the plural of datum:

I'm going to store those data in MySQL.

I can never bring myself to say that, and it has nothing to do with my database preference. :-) Luckily, treating data as a singular noun appears to be gaining acceptance, according to a usage note:

Sixty percent of the Usage Panel accepts the use of data with a singular verb and pronoun in the sentence Once the data is in, we can begin to analyze it.

I'm not sure what the Usage Panel is, but it sounds important.

Another one that really bugs me is the way quotes are handled in the US:

"I think our quoting rules are dumb," Chris thinks to himself.

For whatever reason, it's required that the comma be within the quotes there, and this complete lack of precision bugs me, especially when writing about technical topics (where precision is important). The Jargon File agrees:

Then delete a line from the file by typing "dd."

In a vi tutorial, the period is actually misleading, because "dd." will delete a line and then repeat the last command, deleting two lines. The ambiguity caused by the lack of precision required by US grammatical rules can be very misleading. Is it better to be right or be clear? I usually choose clarity, but that's just me.

About this post

Technical Vocabulary and Grammar was posted on Thu, 19 Jan 2006. If you liked it, follow me on Twitter or share:

27 comments

1.David Grant said:

Re: I wonder what Brain Bulb is up to these days.

Personally, I treat companies as singular entities, so would always use the above grammar.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 16:42:18 GMT Link


2.Melanie said:

The quotes in your examples are actually two different situations. The first usage is correct. If you look at any novel written in English, the punctuation in dialogue is always inside the quotes.

The "dd" should have the period outside of the quotes. In this case the quotes are used to highlight the command "dd". The period belongs on the outside because it is part of the sentence as a whole and not just the portion in the quotes.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:03:45 GMT Link


3.Ivo Jansch said:

Another confusion I often hear is about memory versus harddisk space. Some people don't understand the difference, and make comparisons such as 'ah, you have 512 Mb? I've got 160Gb'

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:31:47 GMT Link


4.mike said:

I agree that are many rules to language that should be abandoned, because in today's world they don't make sense. I have been studying English since I was born and consider myself pretty well versed, but I always have a difficult time with the infamous Apostrophe. The easy stuff is easy, but when it comes to differences with names and nouns, names ending in S, nouns ending in S, etc. All very confusing.

As for the computer part, my wife calls the monitor the computer and the computer is the "box thing".

I think punctiation needs to go inside quotes only when the quotes are for someone speaking or thinking, but I could be wrong.

My favorite place to find the right answer, is here:

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:34:05 GMT Link


5.Chris Shiflett said:

Melanie, I meant to present the first example as correct usage. Sorry if that was confusing. I'm pretty sure the second usage is also correct, but I'd love to see evidence to the contrary.

Mike, I know exactly what you mean. There is an entire chapter on apostrophes in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a very entertaining book about grammar.

A possessive plural noun takes an apostrophe at the very end. Pretty much everything else follows the "normal" rule of adding an "s" after the apostrophe. For example, this is Chris's blog, not Chris' blog - I'm only one person. :-)

Another one people have trouble with is the "a" versus "an" situation. The difference has to do with liaisons, so sound matters, not spelling. If a vowel sound follows the article, "an" is used. Otherwise, "a" is. These are correct:

A URL...

An understanding of grammar...

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:48:06 GMT Link


6.Michael Kimsal said:

"Methodology" when people mean "method" is another one that bugs the heck out of me.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:53:56 GMT Link


7.Chris Shiflett said:

Yeah, that's a good one, Michael. :-)

By the way, I noticed that you have a podcast about web development. Do you think my readers (mostly PHP and MySQL folks) would enjoy it?

Off to listen...

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 17:57:12 GMT Link


8.Melanie said:

Hi Chris,

The quote usage I was talking about comes from this book:

http://dianahacker.com/writersref/

I have the Candian version, but it is pretty much the same. It is an extremely handy guide to have around when you get those little nagging feelings about something in your writing.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 18:25:44 GMT Link


9.Christopher Kunz said:

I have to wonder: what the hell does this have to do with PHP?

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 18:28:17 GMT Link


10.Chris Shiflett said:

About as much as your comment has to do with this discussion. Go troll elsewhere...

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 18:35:21 GMT Link


11.Joe Lewis said:

I'm looking in my copy of Elements of Style and it reads in the section on quotations (p.36 in my aged 3rd edition paperback copy):

-----

When a quotation is followed by an attributive phrase, the comma is enclosed within the quotation marks.

"I can't attend," she said.

Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there.

-----

So at least there is a nod that the comma placement convention here doesn't always make sense, but this is common in so many other standards that we know and love. ;-)

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 19:30:11 GMT Link


12.Mike Naberezny said:

http://www.mla.org/store&hzid=S178

A large number of universities in the U.S. teach the MLA (Modern Language Association) style. It covers the basics of the English language and grammatic rules like these. The MLA Handbook is the closest thing to a standard for writing in English I have seen that is not domain-specific like APA style. If you're looking for the "correct" way to write professionally, it's probably worth checking out.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 19:47:19 GMT Link


13.Chris Shiflett said:

Joe, nice to know. :-) I've got a copy of that as well, but I rarely reference it. I should probably read through it again sometime.

Mike, thanks for the information. My copy of the MLA Handbook is the 5th edition, so it's nice to see that I'm only one edition behind. :-) I use this to resolve any questions I have, so it's nice to see that it's as close to a standard as we have.

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 20:01:10 GMT Link


14.Dave Nelson said:

Another one that irritates the heck out of me is when people say "backslash" instead of "slash" when spelling a URL out loud. This happens a lot with TV and radio news anchors/reporters, but what makes me laugh and cry at the same time is when I hear advertisements in which this mistake is made... sometimes for well-known companies, even. How embarrassing.

As I wrote this, I was trying to think of what backslashes are actually used for, besides DOS/Windows paths. In the process, I found this interesting, relevant page:

http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

Other than DOS/Windows paths, backslashes seem to only be used as an escape character. Was there any use for them before computers?

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 20:51:07 GMT Link


15.Werner said:

English is not my first language and I make a lot of "technical" grammar mistakes, to spite the fact that I have to write in English on a daily basis. The illustrated use of quotes really blew me away, as I use then quite often when writing in English. Needless to say, my English is not very good, and I still don't use a spell checker (not for stuff like IRC, at least!).

Now, note the following use of quotes, which is actually a comment regarding Chris' (<- is that apostrophe used correctly?) paragraph on the use of the term "computers": We have been referring to computers simply as "boxes", e.g. "my box is dead", "yeah, I did put it in my box" (installed/compiled it) for quite some time now. Great was my surprise when, after travelling to other places around the world, some people got offended since they understood "box" in their general language as a filthy term, representative of genitals (enough said about that!). I still find it hard to un-learn the term (can I use dashes like that for made-up words?).

By now it is also quite apparent that I usually write in very long sentenses, which is also not a good idea for things like tutorials. A bit off the topic, I would also like to mention that US textbooks use a more understandable and generally written in a "simpler" form of English than their British counterparts. Most academic North Americans write in "simple" or laymens terms when explaining some fundamentals, unlike those from Europe and the UK (that is just a personal observation). Maybe that's why some North Americans try to use technical terms in order to sound educated about things that they are not educated about? (Given the fact that the most educated North American writers use simple terms, I am not quite sure what they are trying to achieve in this regard, which makes me agree 100% with Chris.

P.S. The funny thing is that I really tried to write a gramatically correct comment here (concentrating very hard), yet I'm sure that it is riddled with gramatical mistakes! Yet, I think the message came across just fine?

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 21:58:14 GMT Link


16.Werner said:

By the way, thanks for the link to "Common Errors in English", Dave. It is my new home page for the time being, although it might not mention that I need to close my parentheses, which I forgot to do in my post (I already spotted at least three grammatical mistakes in my own post after just scanning it briefly). At least I always close them in my code, and to me, that's what matters the most.

I don't think anyone will ever "master" a language. I will die one day without knowing hundreds of words of my own native first language, but that's OK. There is always room for improvements and blogs like this one surely helps!

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 22:08:57 GMT Link


17.Andrew Johnstone said:

One particular one I have had crop up numerous times is that adding an A record to your DNS does not mean wrapping your site in a frameset :)

Anyway, I can't count the number of times i've heard this... Depreciated != Deprecated

Thu, 19 Jan 2006 at 23:46:29 GMT Link


18.David Rodger said:

* Orientated != Oriented

* Depreciated != Deprecated

How about alternate. One alternates between two things, and one may choose from a set of alternatives. To describe something as alternate means it is THE other, whereas an alternative is AN other. Americans ALWAYS get that one wrong.

How about momentarily. I've had several American friends say that they'll be with me "momentarily". I'm not sure how I feel about that. I know they're busy, but can't they spare more than a moment to meet with me?

(Momentarily means FOR a moment, not IN a moment's time.)

Fri, 20 Jan 2006 at 10:16:07 GMT Link


19.Sam said:

> I wonder what Brain Bulb is up to these days.

> I wonder what Brain Bulb are up to these days.

Both are correct; "proper" usage depends on dialect. Most US dialects favor the former, most British dialects the latter. I cannot speak to English dialects in other countries, although I've noticed it does vary.

> Then delete a line from the file by typing "dd."

The same is true for punctuation: typical US usage dictates that the period be within the quotes ("dd.") even if the period is not actually part of the quotation. Most of the rest of the world places the period outside ("dd".).

Fri, 20 Jan 2006 at 15:06:01 GMT Link


20.Ben Ramsey said:

My comment became so long that I decided to blog it here:

http://benramsey.com/archives/techn...ry-and-grammar/

Fri, 20 Jan 2006 at 16:20:10 GMT Link


21.Grant Root said:

Actually, the system case was pretty commonly referred to as the CPU a couple of decades ago (differentiating it from the monitor and the keyboard), so I wouldn't blame folks too much for that one.

Speakers who call some language feature "depreciated" drive me nuts.

And in tech writing I always place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks when it is unrelated to the quoted material. It's not common US usage, but as you point out it's much clearer when talking about tech subjects.

Sat, 21 Jan 2006 at 03:34:24 GMT Link


22.wellington said:

Professional programmers spend most of their time writing English (or their native language) and not code. That is why it is *crucial* for programmers to sharpen not just their coding skills, but their natural language skills as well.

I believe that the clarity and precision of one's natural language will only help make one's code more effective. It seems obvious that there exists a correlation between the ability to express a complex idea effectively in code and the ability to express it in speech or writing.

Anyway, the abuses that cause me the most grief:

1. The improper use of quotes to indicate emphasis; i.e.:

We carry "fresh" fruit

Um...so it's not fresh?

2. Using "loose" for "lose". No need to explain.

Thu, 26 Jan 2006 at 02:10:04 GMT Link


23.abigail said:

es muy buena

Mon, 13 Feb 2006 at 15:26:00 GMT Link


24.Stevie D said:

In terms of where to put punctuation and quotes, English differs from American. The English rules are more consistent and logical than the American.

In _reported speech_, punctuation goes inside the closing quote marks.

"Are you sure?" he asked, "I didn't realise that."

The speaker finishes the sentence, and then the quote ends.

That is different from _quoting text within a passage_. In that case, it is only the text that goes within the quotes, the punctuation is not part of the quotation, but part of the "sentence". Putting punctuation inside the quote marks in this context, as your vi example shows, is just Wrongâ„¢.

Thu, 16 Mar 2006 at 13:01:38 GMT Link


25.robinv said:

* Orientated != Oriented

Yes it is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary who are usually pretty reliable on this kind of thing.

http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oe...ientate?view=uk

-robin

Thu, 16 Mar 2006 at 17:23:25 GMT Link


26.Jake said:

One little thing that annoys me, and I suspect may annoy others, is spelling in programming or web design etc.

For example, when CSS'ing I need to use "color:#000;", but the British spelling is actually "colour". It can take me a surprising amount of time to work out why my CSS isn't working! Either that, or I spell colour incorrectly in my everyday writing.

Oh well, I suppose I'll just have to live with it; until they create "CSS 3.0 GB" of course! ;-)

Thu, 16 Mar 2006 at 20:34:15 GMT Link


27.Chris Shiflett said:

Anyone who finds this discussion interesting should check out the eggcorn database:

http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/

Sun, 07 Jan 2007 at 01:14:35 GMT Link


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