I recently attended a technical meeting in which one delegate good-naturedly complained about someone else’s use of the word “transition” as a verb.
Another attendee quickly retorted with the clever aphorism that serves as headline for this column. For most of the meeting’s participants, this served as brief but merciful comic relief to the excruciatingly technical discussion, and it was quickly forgotten. But for me it also served as a good reminder of the adaptation that language experiences as it confronts new requirements in communication.
The idea that a noun can be used as a verb is something that many wordsmiths find most appalling, and some feel compelled to point out these and similar violations at every opportunity. These objections are well founded, to a point.
I agree that strict adherence to grammar and spelling is critically important, and I’m saddened whenever I see these rules of the road losing their emphasis in education. The guardianship of such tenets that teachers provide in schools is passed on to the editors of the printed word in professional life. While most editors in traditional media continue to do a good job, the far less rigorous worlds of the Internet and desktop publishing often allow fairly wide distribution of poorly written text today.
We can only guess at the overall effect that these new publication modes may have on weakening the overall level of our language arts. It certainly isn’t strengthening them, however. (Not to turn this into a grammar lesson, but the most common annoyances I’ve seen lately are improper use of the apostrophe — especially “its” vs. “it’s” — and use of the word “loose” when “lose” is actually intended.)
English as a first language
Admittedly, English is a difficult language to learn, but most English speakers have the advantage of generally not needing another language, and often don’t learn one to any level of fluency, so they should at least become reasonably adept at all forms of expression in the one language they do know.
Turning that issue around, consider also the many new or prospective arrivals to this country who observe our common usage of English as they gain proficiency in the language. Radio is one of the best and most widely employed ambassadors of English throughout the world. Because it involves spoken language only, it generally avoids most of the pitfalls just mentioned, although it is not completely immune from such pollutants.
Most announcers are well-spoken, and the scarcity of outlets for broadcast radio means that quality levels are upheld – although talk radio is an obvious exception to such controls.
Incidentally, this proficiency with speech in the world of radio does have some crossover to written language. During my years as editor of broadcast magazines, the articles submitted by radio professionals were almost always significantly better written than those coming from TV people. While this is a sweeping and non-scientific analysis, it is one I continue to stand by in general terms.
Today, however, nearly any deeply technical discussion or text will inevitably run afoul of traditional rules, as did the dialog at the meeting mentioned earlier. This is where I part company with the strict traditionalists, and become a supporter of an evolutionary approach to language.
New words and expressions are always required, and often basing these new words on old roots is a good approach. Perhaps best is simply adding a new definition to an existing word.
This is particularly important in the highly conceptual world of software, where many common words like “environment,” “method,” “call,” “object” and “resource” have sprouted new specific meanings. In some cases a brand-new word is required, but these are rare.
The use of existing terms keeps the jargon factor down, although it is strange to encounter a sentence in which all the words and grammar are familiar, but the meaning remains impenetrable.
The popular public radio program “Whad’ya Know?” includes a regular feature called “Thanks for the Memos,” in which a particularly bad example of incomprehensible written English is presented, selected from numerous audience submissions each week. This serves as a good metric of the extreme, and a reminder of why great care should be taken in any technical writing.
Nevertheless, adaptations are necessary if a relatively static language is to keep up with rapidly evolving technology. Some languages are better about this than others. This is why the same article that runs four pages in English may run five pages in Spanish, or three pages in German, for example.
Linguists who take the longer view, such as lexicographers, acknowledge that certain words and forms fall from common usage, and become officially classified as obsolete and eventually archaic. They also allow new words and definitions to enter their dictionaries at each new edition.
Unfortunately, the speed of change required in technical communication has far outpaced this official process, so some reasonable license must be allowed in those circles. One must take care to restrain such license to the purely technical domain, however, and not allow this stylistic fluidity to infiltrate one’s regular, non-technical discourse – particularly when trying to explain basic issues to the non-initiated.
(The great editor, author and writing teacher William Zinsser addresses this process well in his marvelous books “On Writing Well” and “Writing to Learn.”)
Another way that language attempts to hold its ground against the inexorable onslaught of new requirements is through the use of acronyms. It helps the written and spoken word keep up with the ever-increasing density and speed of communication required, but it is particularly detrimental to the literary quality of the language.
Acronyms are so pervasive in technical discourse that the field is considered a “TLA-rich environment” – where TLA is a three-letter acronym for “three-letter acronym.”
We have even moved into a second order of abbreviation (“nested acronyms”), where one or more of the letters in an acronym is the first letter of another acronym (e.g., DASE, the interactive standard format for U.S. terrestrial digital television, stands for “DTV Application Software Environment”).
While generally annoying and off-putting, acronyms do serve a useful and efficient purpose in technical language. Often, they are also universal terms, requiring no translation to other tongues.
So the next time you hear or read something that sets off your grammar or usage alarm, consider hitting the snooze button and waiting to see whether it ultimately aids communication or comprehension. What you’re hearing may just be the sound of language evolving.