On Splitting Hairs

As most of you know, I write  lot. I enjoy it. I started out writing 800-page books; when I was offered by first 800-word monthly magazine column, a wise editor told me, “this’ll make you a better writer.” That’s because, when you only have 800 words, you choose every one with care. An unfortunate side effect of that is it can make you a bit of a syntactic hair-splitter.

For example, I hate the word training, and all of its friends – trainer, for example. Training is for dogs and dolphins; it implies showing someone how to repeat a precise series of steps on command. Outside the US, trainings has somehow become a noun, eliminating the phrase training class, where training is at least an adjective. Making things a noun gives them even more power – and I just hate training having that kind of power. I am not a trainer. I am a teacher, despite whatever government issues may arise around that profession. I try to make people smarter, able to make decisions on their own, and able to learn on their own. I use stories, analogies, and shared experiences to convey information in a way that builds on what someone already knows.

And again despite the many trade and government issues around the word, I love engineering. Engineers of all kinds deal with science and facts. A civil engineer working on a bridge might not care for the way gravity works, but is bound by it regardless. For better or for worse, I am not a craftsman or ninja or whatever; my work with technology doesn’t involve a great deal of design aesthetic or uninformed opinion, nor does it involve nunchucks or stealth. While I may not work as a “network engineer” in a sense accepted by engineering professional associations, I very much apply the basic principles of engineering to my work.

Even ignoring the many ridiculous phrases and euphemisms we come up with for political correctness, I’m still amazed at the wide range of meaningless words we use to describe otherwise straightforward things. For example, when teaching in Europe, I found that the people in my classes were delegates, not students. I found that odd, and always wondered if there was some legal reason (e.g., if you have students, you’re legally a school, and must comply with ____). But it’s not like the class is a standards body – we don’t have delegates. You’re students. Or learners, maybe. Attendees at the least.

So – again, political correctness aside, because  it’s boring – what meaningless or wrong words do you run across in your career? What words do you think we should be using instead, and why?

3 thoughts on “On Splitting Hairs

  1. Lee Cumberbatch

    Totally agree with you on the term delegate. It implies that they have no active part; it is not due to a legal restriction or implication on being a school if using on using student.
    Student isn’t commonly associated with adult learning and therefore is unlikely to be used in Europe. Participant seems to work. At least it implies the learner has an active role to play in the course/class/programme/workshop. By the way, out of those four I’d use course and workshop.

  2. rfhjr

    “Senior” is kind of interesting. If you’re a Senior Developer what does it really mean? That you have been doing it a really long time or that you’re really experienced or is it both?

  3. Todd Seward

    One that I’ve been hearing a great deal lately from salespeople where I work, as well as customers is “ask” — as in, “What’s the ask?”

    Call me crazy, but I thought “ask” was a verb. Have we become so lazy that we won’t say, “what are the customer’s requirements?” or “what is the customer asking for?”

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