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21 December 2010

Quite ambiguous

By Andrew Clifford

Picking the right words for IT is very hard.

One of the satisfying things about writing this newsletter is that it is read by people all over the world. Although I am British, I can communicate with people in the US, in India, in other English-speaking parts of the world, and, because English is the closest thing we have to a global language, in many other countries too.

However, I use the term "communicate" very loosely. I am very aware that use of language varies wildly across the world.

Although I am sure I fail a lot of the time, I do try to remember this when I write. As an example, I am careful not to use the work "quite". "Quite" is very commonly used in British English, but it is an awkward little word because it can mean "totally" or "very", or it can mean or "moderately" or "only slightly". In British spoken English we distinguish by the amount of stress we put on the word, so "quite warm" can mean "hot" or "between cool and warm" depending on how you say it.

From what I understand, "quite" nearly always means "very" in other countries, especially in the US. One example, possibly fictitious, is the British job applicant to a US-based company who was told that they were "quite pleased" with his interview. In the UK this would be a polite refusal; in the US it means they really liked him.

IT is a global profession, with the same solutions and ideas being applied across the world. We therefore need to be very careful with the words we use. Added to that, IT is a young profession, and we have not yet settled on the right words to use in different situations.

This can cause misunderstanding even within a single organisation. Within my own company we have argued whether we should present our approach as "lightweight". What we are trying to get across is that our methods for improving IT are easy and cheap. But it could just as well be interpreted that our methods are not powerful and are not professional.

We have a similar problem when we try to explain that we can support assessments and analysis in many different subject areas. I have tried using the word "generic", meaning that they are not specific to one subject area but can be applied to many. However, "generic" could just as easily mean that our solutions are not from a known brand and are inferior quality.

It takes time to find the right words. We have learnt to use "general-purpose" rather than "generic". Other people use the term "lite" rather than "lightweight", though I cannot bring myself to use such a horribly misspelled word.

In IT we have all the terminology problems of a technical subject, amplified by the global nature of the profession, and made harder by its newness. There are huge opportunities for misunderstanding. We have to work hard at finding the right words, and need to value clarity much more than elegance in how we communicate.

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