"With respect to an equivalence defined by (some feature)"
September 10, 2012 4:23 AM   Subscribe

The Award For Nerdiest Preposition Goes To ...

... modulo.

LanguageLog: A new preposition is born, in reference to 'post.'

wiki: List of English prepositions
posted by the man of twists and turns (116 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The meaning is not hard to guess" Um...
posted by pugh at 4:33 AM on September 10, 2012


Holy crap.
Here's a more general definition, though, from the American Heritage Dictionary: "Correcting or adjusting for something, as by leaving something out of account: 'This proposal is the best so far, modulo the fact that parts of it need modification.'"
posted by pracowity at 4:33 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


pugh: ""The meaning is not hard to guess" Um..."

It's not, if you know the mathematical use. But, like anything else, this will get widely used when more people understand it and start to use it. I think it's moderately useful, myself, though it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:35 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I guess this guy from the Economist doesn't talk to many math people? It seems like everyone I know who knows what 'modulo' means is uses it as a preposition. Imagine his shock when he discovers people say 'mod' instead.
posted by hoyland at 4:39 AM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


I love pointless synchronicity. These last two weeks I've been playing around with Google Refine (awesome) and spent much of yesterday rifling through their (completely not awesome) GREL "help" pages. Anyways, they are riddled with modulo and modulus, which was entirely new to me. Apparently to the iPhone autocomplete dictionary too.

these are the sorts of things that are fun to track in the MeFi corpus tables.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:43 AM on September 10, 2012


I've definitely heard this and used it myself. But maybe I work with nerds. (Actually, I definitely work with nerds. But maybe I've never heard it from anyone but nerds.)

..though it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't.

I think it does, although the point is subtle. "Except for" indicates a minor operation with major results. For instance, "I'm done with this report except for the formatting." "Modulo" indicates a major operation with minor results. For instance, "These orbits are good, modulo changing coordinate system."

(Where "major" and "minor" are in the eye of the beholder, obvs.)
posted by DU at 4:44 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've used it plenty of times mathematically, but I've never heard anyone use it outside a mathematical context. Kids these days.
posted by pracowity at 4:45 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


You might not think of "pace", "versus" or "notwithstanding".

There's a lot of words from other languages I might not think of when thinking of English prepositions.
posted by DU at 4:47 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


not to be the language hipster or anything, but that usage is at least 20 years old.
posted by facetious at 4:50 AM on September 10, 2012


Huh... I use it pretty frequently but I've never thought of it as a preposition. But it makes sense since I started going to math camp (where Number Theory is the primary course) when I was 14 and learned the most about English grammar in German class. I think I picked up using it as a general preposition from a non-math source though. Random Usenet post? Here? Can't honestly remember.
posted by kmz at 4:51 AM on September 10, 2012


I have learnt a new word in what I imagine is the English language. Pray tell, which side of the Atlantic is it from?
posted by infini at 4:57 AM on September 10, 2012


Pray tell, which side of the Atlantic is it from?

The bottom.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


modulo is also very common in coding, which shouldn't be too surprising really; it's a regular shortcut to work out if something is divisible or not;

if (x%y !== 0) then x is not divisible by y - can be handy for picking out even/odd index pairs from an unknown length series for example.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


verbing nerding weirds language.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:01 AM on September 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have learnt a new word in what I imagine is the English language. Pray tell, which side of the Atlantic is it from?

The side that does math. Or maths.
posted by kmz at 5:01 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


modulo is also very common in coding, which shouldn't be too surprising really;

Ugh, don't even get me started on how most languages don't implement mod correctly for negative dividends.
posted by kmz at 5:05 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's some good discussion of this on my blog.
posted by escabeche at 5:08 AM on September 10, 2012


I first heard it used this way from the bottom of the Atlantic - that is, an Australian PhD. But DU gets it perfectly.

Modulo is a non-absolute preposition - it acknowledges there is work to be done and that work may not be a simple set operation (except), but rather an acknowledged, probably iterative or consistent change.

My most-familiar context: "So you're saying, modulo the work we discussed regarding optimization, the project will be ready in June?"
posted by abulafa at 5:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's moderately useful, myself, though it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't.

It communicates a lot about the speaker. (Currently, anyway. If it gets taken up into common usage, not so much.)
posted by Leon at 5:09 AM on September 10, 2012


can be handy for picking out even/odd index pairs from an unknown length series for example.

Not just even/odd. I use it fairly frequently (like once a year) for splitting up jobs. You have X items to process in parallel across Y machines. Assign item X to machine # X modulo Y. If the Xs are in rough order you even get automatic load balancing. You can do the same thing throughout time rather than space. For instance, do a full backup when the daynum mod 14 is 0.

Another very common use for me is to rotate across the 0/360 discontinuity in degree measures. You need to use a floating mod there, but you can get a "canonical" form by doing fmod(fmod(degree,360.0)+360,360.). (The extra + 360 and fmod are because the first one might have been negative if degrees was.)
posted by DU at 5:09 AM on September 10, 2012


But, like anything else, this will get widely used abused when more people think they understand it and start try to use it.

I see vast herds of cringing computer scientists, mathematicians and language aficionados in the not to distant future.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:14 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ugh, don't even get me started on how most languages don't implement mod correctly for negative dividends.

Yep. One of the ways I evaluate a language now is finding out if they have both a mod and a rem, which is the only way to solve this problem. (In the chart, note that both C and C++ are "implementation defined" meaning you can't use negative mods in those languages.)

Fortunately for my statement above (The extra + 360 and fmod are because the first one might have been negative if degrees was.), there's only one implementation of the language in question.
posted by DU at 5:14 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess I can envision -- in theory -- a case for using "modulo" in a non-numerical context. But in practice I can't see this as anything but the new proactive and paradigm.
posted by bjrubble at 5:18 AM on September 10, 2012


Modulo is a non-absolute preposition - it acknowledges there is work to be done and that work may not be a simple set operation (except), but rather an acknowledged, probably iterative or consistent change.

My most-familiar context: "So you're saying, modulo the work we discussed regarding optimization, the project will be ready in June?"


Can it be applied in the context of human centered design and the need for iterative evolution of solutions neccessary to adapt to changing conditions? (Not design of a hardware maybe but a business model say or a plan of action maybe?)
posted by infini at 5:18 AM on September 10, 2012


Yes, it will undoubtedly become something dumb people say to sound smart. But in order for that codepath to entered, it has to start as something smart people just say, period. That's the era we are now in.
posted by DU at 5:21 AM on September 10, 2012


Doing a primitive search, it looks like I've used "modulo" in the non-math sense at least 5 or 6 times on this site, twice even in the context of justifying MLB's "World Series". But my favorite is probably "modulo zombies".
posted by kmz at 5:23 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


As soon as I figure out the answer to "young : lawn :: smart : ??" I'm going to have to ask y'all to get off my ??.
posted by artychoke at 5:28 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Searched for myself and the best are "modulo a little kicking and punching" and "Modulo Einstein".
posted by DU at 5:28 AM on September 10, 2012


So I'm all like 'modulo some stuff!!!' and she's all 'Totes, mutatis mutandum that junk!!!
posted by Segundus at 5:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [16 favorites]


Mondulo that question on Ask about how to avoid sounding over-educated...
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:32 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Few realise that 'pedalo' was originally also a preposition, meaning subject to come in number forty-sic, your time is up.
posted by Abiezer at 5:33 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hear modulo used in conversation fairly frequently, but only by friends who work in computer science and physics. We tend to get lots of odd vocabulary and metaphors bleeding through from our work into casual conversation, so while it never struck me as too odd, I'd be surprised to hear it elsewhere.

I'm slightly embarassed to say that, until today, I never actually knew what a preposition was.* So thanks for this, you taught me something new! I can see myself getting lost down some linguistics blog and wikipedia rabbit holes tonight.

You might not think of "pace", "versus" or "notwithstanding".

"Pace" is high on my list of words that I use but probably shouldn't, largely because I'm the only person I've ever heard say it out loud and therefore base my pronounciation on ecclesiastical Latin, which is probably wrong. So depending on the educational background of the person I'm speaking to, I sound either pretentious or pretentious and wrong. I can't help it though, it's a handy little word that for some reason I find very satisfying to say. pAAARRchhay! I already have a ridiculous accent, so a few odd word choices isn't going to make things much worse.

Also, did anyone else misread the link and originally come in here looking for "nerdiest propositions"? Because if that site doesn't already exist, someone should make it.

*I don't know what it's like now, but when I was in school there had been a bit of a backlash against overly-prescriptive and rote teaching of language, and so we were taught only just enough grammar to construct a mostly-correct sentence, and expected to pick the rest up by osmosis. As a consequence, our foreign language teachers spent a solid 50% of their time teaching us English grammar, before we could hope to understand that of another language. It drives my SO crazy, too: English is not her first language, and when she asks me to correct her grammar I can do so to an acceptable level, but not explain the rules I'm following beyond "it just looks right".
posted by metaBugs at 5:34 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mondulo that question on Ask about how to avoid sounding over-educated...

The funny thing there is that the best answer is "use plain speech". That's going to depend on your audience. If you are talking to nerds, then "modulo" is the plain speech version of "except for a few big things I have to do that don't really affect the result much qualitatively".

It's like an equation rendered into English. I really really really hate books that spend page upon page talking around an equation rather than simply writing it out. Saves space and is much more accurate and clear.
posted by DU at 5:40 AM on September 10, 2012


Modulo is quite common in usual non-math French. Using Google Books, the earliest use as a colloquial preposition I can find was by mathematicians themselves in the 1960s and the next people to use it seem to have been linguists and grammarians in the 1970s. It would be interesting to see if the dissemination pattern is the same in English.
posted by elgilito at 5:44 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hear modulo used in conversation fairly frequently, but only by friends who work in computer science...

I'm slightly embarassed to say that, until today, I never actually knew what a preposition was.


Former linguistics major here and, as someone who knows quite well what a preposition is (but who has never heard the term "modulo" before), the examples above make me dread the prospect of nerdspeak taking over English.
posted by psoas at 5:54 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK I have a grievence I've been waiting to have aired, and since I fully expect this will become relevant in spirit once again in poor modulo's case: people say "exponentially" when they really mean to say "quite fast."
posted by Algebra at 5:58 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This thread is boggling my mind. People who speak "ecclesiastical Latin" but don't know what a preposition is. Linguists and others who've never heard of modulo.

What DO they teach in elementary school these days?
posted by DU at 6:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's no reason modulo should be preserved from the bashing parameter has received from the innumerati.
posted by hexatron at 6:07 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, the author of the piece, "R.L.G.," is Robert Lane Greene.

My personal favorite preposition is outwith.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I propose that somebody manufacture fictional "trending phrases" so they could serve as a kind of marker to call out douchebags who perpetuate their circulation. If I ever get my hands on the person who made the incorrect use of "begs the question" so popular these days...
posted by Rykey at 6:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't.

I was thinking the same thing. I guess I'm an undereducated pleb, because I don't remember ever hearing this word. I'm glad it's been explained to me here, though, so I don't have to feel embarrassed if I ever do hear it in speech or something.

But on the subject of nerdish words, in the category of adverbs, I'd have to go with "actually". Maybe not the most sophisticated or esoteric adverb, but if there's a conversation about some obscure topic, sooner or later, you can expect someone to interject with e.g. "Actually, Monk is just as viable a class for beginners to Nethack as Barbarian".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:28 AM on September 10, 2012


Over 90 % of Scotland outwith the infected areas is currently barricaded behind 'Keep Out' signs.

Mo Nickels you awesome.
posted by bukvich at 6:30 AM on September 10, 2012


You might not think of "pace", "versus" or "notwithstanding".

There's a lot of words from other languages I might not think of when thinking of English prepositions.


Probably want to get with the times, then. It has been a recognized English preposition for a lot longer than a dozen other words you will use today without a second thought.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


But on the subject of nerdish words, in the category of adverbs, I'd have to go with "actually".

We have a moratorium on that word in my house, because the kids will use it to begin every goddamn sentence in a conversation.
"Do you want a peach with your lunch?"
"Actually, I want a plum."
"Should I cut it up for you?"
"Actually, I'll just eat it."
"Milk to drink?"
"Actually... Yes."
posted by Etrigan at 6:43 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I just saw pace strategically sprinkled into a sentence in a different thread.

Ack! this thread is contagious, let us quarantine it forthwith henceforth
posted by infini at 6:46 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be interesting to see if the dissemination pattern is the same in English.

The bloke who wrote the thing in the Economist is all "What is this strange thing linguists are using in emails?" So apparently so.

it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't.

"up to" is what I'd being saying if I didn't say "modulo". Using "except for" would require extra words, I think.
posted by hoyland at 6:53 AM on September 10, 2012


Modulo is not nerdy; it's Dutch, most often used in the more bureaucratic parts of life.

What would be useful was if English had the concept of circa or ca (or even ~), for talking about rough numbers: circa 100 people will come to the party. It's more precise than using around, which is the nearest equivalent.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:54 AM on September 10, 2012


English has both "around" and "about" for your circa. Also nerds will sometimes says "on the order of" but unless it's a scientific context, they'll be mostly joking.
posted by DU at 6:58 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, why say something folk can understand, when you can dazzle them with words hard and dark? English isn't easy enough, we must make it harder!
What would be useful was if English had the concept of circa or ca (or even ~), for talking about rough numbers: circa 100 people will come to the party. It's more precise than using around, which is the nearest equivalent.
"About". The word is "about". It means exactly what you're describing. No need for a new word.
posted by Jehan at 6:58 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


... English absolutely uses 'circa.'
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:58 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


English uses "circa," although usually just for dates. Regardless, I'm unclear as how to how "circa 100 people" would be any more or less precise than "around 100 people" or "about 100 people."

As for my favorite preposition, I like using "whence" without a redundant "from." I know that "from whence" is accepted usage, but there's no point in doing so! Just say "from where" or "whence!"
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:00 AM on September 10, 2012


As someone who fully understands the use of modulo in mathematics and programming, I'm not seeing any connection to its use as a preposition in any of these examples. They all seem to be cases where I would use "except for" or "save for".
posted by rocket88 at 7:04 AM on September 10, 2012


A few thoughts:

1. I expect a thread like this is what convinced people that "begging the question" was a good expression.

2. I see vast herds of cringing computer scientists, mathematicians and language aficionados in the not to distant future. -- Sadly, this is the future of pretty much everything.

3. Modulo is not nerdy; it's Dutch, most often used in the more bureaucratic parts of life. -- This explains why Lovecraft was inspired to use italics for the terrifying sentence "... the apparently disembodied chatter was beyond a doubt in the Dutch language." At least that mystery is solved.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, why say something folk can understand, when you can dazzle them with words hard and dark? English isn't easy enough, we must make it harder!

God forbid people have fun with language. I guess we should all just use Basic English and be done with it.
posted by kmz at 7:16 AM on September 10, 2012


As someone who fully understands the use of modulo in mathematics and programming, I'm not seeing any connection to its use as a preposition in any of these examples. They all seem to be cases where I would use "except for" or "save for".
Suppose the thing that was being excepted wasn't a single act, operation, or parameter but an ongoing process which may itself affect the assertion. In fact, "modulo zombies" from above is a great example - not one zombie, not a whole bunch of zombies at once, but acknowledging an ongoing risk or agent that can't be accounted for except in context of a consistent small measure across an entire event.

Its latin origin is "a little change" - a change exactly little enough to be worth noting in math, set theory and now in expressive language - but not so little as to be inconsequential. "Except for" implies subtly that the case excepted can be effectively ignored while modulo acknowledges quite the opposite - the subject is of a size necessary to mention and bear in mind for the duration of the event in question.
posted by abulafa at 7:20 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gretchen, stop trying to make "fetch" happen. It's not going to happen.
posted by kyrademon at 7:22 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I first heard it used this way from the bottom of the Atlantic - that is, an Australian PhD.

Maybe you mean "from the bottom of the Pacific"?
posted by aqsakal at 7:23 AM on September 10, 2012


Its more like "to the bottom right of the South China Sea" tbh
posted by infini at 7:31 AM on September 10, 2012


Actually, to the bottom east.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:32 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


We're all in agreement that Australia is the bottom, though - that's what counts.
posted by Segundus at 7:42 AM on September 10, 2012


Oh, sure, if you're a northist.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:47 AM on September 10, 2012


Maybe you mean "from the bottom of the Pacific"?

No, that's Cthulhu. And, when Cthulhu holds forth on word choice, you'll have more serious problems than "modulo." Like needing three throats. And getting them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:49 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


God forbid people have fun with language. I guess we should all just use Basic English and be done with it.
Saying "modulo" or "pace" isn't about "fun", it's about showing your knowledge or your learning. I'm sure other languages must see the same kinds of things, but I'm always shocked at how little folk understand that people use English to mark their status. Vocabulary is a bit like an arms race, with people frantically searching for the next word to give them the edge, whether its the latest business jargon or some obscure Latinism. Then, when the common folk catch up and start saying it themselves, they decry its "misuse". It's been the same for hundreds of years, so my complaint is more like a sigh than an expectation that people will actually stop. It's absurd, but folk seem to like it.
posted by Jehan at 7:50 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


We're all in agreement that Australia is the bottom, though - that's what counts.

I'm pretty sure XXXX is rimwards. I don't think there's a continent on the bottom of A'Tuin. That would be preposterous.
posted by kmz at 8:03 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heck with modulo, pace, and qua! I got a beef much closer to home.

less
Back when the igneous schist was still soft, I was taught that
five minus two equals three.
And all was right with the world. Jump forward a few years to 'new math' and some of my siblings were taught that
five less two is three.
And the world hasn't been righted since. Fastwind forward a few more years; catalogs and ads tell me that guitars are sold less case. As in
New! Teisco Del Ray Fireball XL5 electric guitar, with five pickups, six vegematic buttons, kandy kolored tangerine metal-flake finish, and mother-of-diningroomtable pickguard.
$99, less case.
. . . Wha? So do I get a case or not? Less used as a preposition didn't sound grammatical to me then, and still grates.

circa
A friend of a friend was a local horror movie host. For years, he seemed to think that "circa" meant "filmed in the year ____", and would introduce movies thus:
"Tonight's feature, Eegah!, circa 1962".
No doubt there are generations of kids who grew up thinking that's the correct use of circa. But the point is probably moot now [ducks].
 
posted by Herodios at 8:04 AM on September 10, 2012


"Except for" indicates a minor operation with major results. For instance, "I'm done with this report except for the formatting." "Modulo" indicates a major operation with minor results. For instance, "These orbits are good, modulo changing coordinate system."

This distinction is not present in my idiolect.
posted by kenko at 8:11 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


A friend of a friend was a local horror movie host. For years, he seemed to think that "circa" meant "filmed in the year ____", and would introduce movies thus:

"Tonight's feature, Eegah!, circa 1962".

No doubt there are generations of kids who grew up thinking that's the correct use of circa.


Actually, with movies, circa is perfectly appropriate, since the year of production and the year of release are often not the same, and indeed the year of production is often a bit of a mystery unless you're willing to take the copyright stamp's word for it (that's usually just the year of completion). The vagaries of dates attached to films are important to acknowledge, in that it would be a mistake to go by the release date (i.e. the year on its IMDB page) to suggest that the film is making a comment on something that happened that year, as the film was likely produced before that event occurred; or that some event was inspired by a film that hadn't yet been released.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think there was a huge debate that replaced the word choice Bottom with Base. So actually, Australia is circa the base of the globe.
posted by infini at 8:19 AM on September 10, 2012


Actually . . .

Tell me, are your beans individually date-stamped?
 
posted by Herodios at 8:26 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there was a huge debate that replaced the word choice Bottom with Base.

Was there really? If so, we should seize upon the fact that the usual translation* of al qaeda into English is "the base," and henceforth refer to the terrorist movement as The Bottom.

*I have seen it variously translated as base, core, or foundation. I regret that when I was in Egypt, I did not have the presence of mind to pick up a translated copy of Isaac Asimov's Al Qaeda.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:27 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


it doesn't communicate much that "except for" doesn't

Indeed. Nor, for that matter, "other than," "notwithstanding," "despite," etc.

And, in the likely event that the listener doesn't understand what "modulo" means, it communicates precisely nothing at all.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:29 AM on September 10, 2012


But wait, why have "except for", "other than", "notwithstanding", and "despite"? Why do we need four words/phrases when just one will do?
posted by kmz at 8:32 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do we need four words/phrases when just one will do?

There are a lot of substitutes. They'll all do. We do not need one more, especially if it's more likely to confound than communicate.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2012


Vocabulary is a bit like an arms race, with people frantically searching for the next word to give them the edge, whether its the latest business jargon or some obscure Latinism. Then, when the common folk catch up and start saying it themselves, they decry its "misuse". It's been the same for hundreds of years, so my complaint is more like a sigh than an expectation that people will actually stop. It's absurd, but folk seem to like it.

This seems to me a tremendously insecure and parochial approach to language. Like anyone, I suppose, I occasionally encounter an unfamiliar word. If my choices are:

a) assume the speaker is a condescending pedant who is trying to make me shamefully admit my ignorance, or

b) look it up,

I tend to just look it up.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:46 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why do we need four words/phrases when just one will do?

We don't technically need them. If we are writing instruction manuals and medical textbooks, 'elegant variations' should be discarded in favour of clarity.

However, each different word for a concept can convey a subtly different tone. Why is this good? Why is it useful? I think that without the subtlety of a vast range of words, we can express ourselves less precisely and with less force. If you want tone and nuance, you need those extra thousands of words.

"Consider the lobster." does not have the same feel as "Think about the lobster." or "Examine the lobster." "Consider" has a thougtful, slow, feel; the phrase "consider the X" has a long history, so it's got weight there; and the contrast between the the intellectual word "Consider" and the unexpected object, the more mundane "lobster", gives it further interest.

Yes, I can say I am angry about something. But if I want to create nuance, I can say I am enraged. I am wrathful. I'm on fire. I am irate, cross or incensed. But today I am VEXED, VEXED INDEED, that anyone can suggest that there should be one word and one word only for ANGRY!
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 9:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


You forgot to be irked, irritated and ironic btw.
posted by infini at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2012


"Consider the lobster." does not have the same feel as "Think about the lobster." or "Examine the lobster."

Consider the lily. Ahhhh.
posted by rh at 9:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


This seems to me a tremendously insecure and parochial approach to language. Like anyone, I suppose, I occasionally encounter an unfamiliar word. If my choices are:

a) assume the speaker is a condescending pedant who is trying to make me shamefully admit my ignorance, or

b) look it up,

I tend to just look it up.
The thing is, answer B only even exists because of A. From the late 1400s and into the 1500s huge numbers of Latin and Greek words were borrowed into English. They often came about through half-assed translations, or grammar school boys showing off to each other. The Inkhorn Controversy in the mid 1500s was a debate about the usefulness of the fashion for such borrowing. Among those who condemned the mass borrowing of Latin and Greek words were actually some of the foremost English scholars of Latin and Greek. They were completely secure in their learning, and condemned it on the grounds that such borrowing was just needless confusion. They understood perfectly every word used, but sighed at the stupid trend and where it might lead.

A generation or so after the controversy, the result of the borrowing craze was seen: the first English dictionary. No dictionary had been needed for hundreds and hundreds of years, until some forms of English had become too hard for many folk to understand without help. Even though literacy was still a minority skill limited to those with some education, even they couldn't keep up with the condescending pedants. The first English only dictionary was called Table Alphabeticall, the introduction to which says,
Svch as by their place and calling, (but especially Preachers) as haue occasion to speak publiquely before the ignorant people, are to bee admonished, that they neuer affect any strange ynckhorne termes, but labour to speake so as is commonly receiued, and so as the most ignorant may well vnderstand them: neyther seeking to be ouer fine or curious, nor yet liuing ouer carelesse, vsing their speech, as most men doe, & ordering their wits, as the fewest haue done. Some men seek so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were aliue, they were not able to tell, or vnderstand what they say, and yet these fine English Clearks, will say they speak in their mother tongue; but one might well charge them, for counterfeyting the Kings English.

Also, some far iournied gentlemen, at their returne home, like as they loue to go in forraine apparrell, so they will pouder their talke with ouer-sea language. He that commeth lately out of France, will talk French English, and neuer blush at the matter. Another chops in with English Italianated, and applyeth the Italian phrase to our English speaking, the which is, as if an Orator, that professeth to vtter his minde in plaine Latine, would needs speake Poetrie, & far fetched colours of strange antiquitie. Doth any wise man think, that wit resteth in strange words, or els standeth it not in wholsome matter, and apt declaring of a mans mind? Do we not speak, because we would haue other to vnderstand vs? or is not the tongue giuen for this end, that one might know what another meaneth?
As I said, you only get to choose B because A already existed. Yet even then, dictionaries didn't contain common words, and no dictionary would for a long time. Nobody needed to look up common words, only the pedantic ones. Many of the words borrowed in the 1500s died out, though many others are still with us. So too, sadly, is the behavior of grabbing from Latin and Greek like kids in a sweet shop. Although now it's a little bit sad, as many of those borrowing or sticking up for those words have little knowledge of Latin, and likely none of Greek. They're engaging in the pretense of a classical learning they neither have nor want. Folk who overuse long and complicated words are the insecure ones, not those who oppose them. Those who know what they mean, and are secure in their knowledge and learning, choose the simplest for their message. Any undergrad can pepper their essays with jargon--and they often do--but it takes years of learning to understand things so fully that you can describe them in the most basic terms.
posted by Jehan at 10:06 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


So, again, I guess we should use Basic English for everything?

(BTW, "pedantic"? "Jargon"? These seem like awfully fancy words to me. Not the basic terms everybody should know and use.)
posted by kmz at 10:14 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, again, I guess we should use Basic English for everything?
Indeed my friend, that's exactly the point of my message. Well done, give yourself a gold star for understanding.
posted by Jehan at 10:21 AM on September 10, 2012


Best (IMO) comment from the original article over at the Economist:

"I don't think "modulo" is any nerdier than "qua". It's just a different set of nerds."
posted by crazy_yeti at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


So what is your point then? Other than that apparently mathy people using mathy terms means they're pretentious and insecure.
posted by kmz at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2012


So what is your point then? Other than that apparently mathy people using mathy terms means they're pretentious and insecure.
I already said it upthread, in answer to your first comment. Did you read it?
posted by Jehan at 11:06 AM on September 10, 2012


Saying "modulo" or "pace" isn't about "fun", it's about showing your knowledge or your learning.

Yes, I did see your declarative mind-reading comment.
posted by kmz at 11:31 AM on September 10, 2012


There is a good deal of discussion of the history and meanings of "modulo" (with complaints about the inadequate OED definition) in this LH thread.

> "Pace" is high on my list of words that I use but probably shouldn't, largely because I'm the only person I've ever heard say it out loud and therefore base my pronounciation on ecclesiastical Latin, which is probably wrong. So depending on the educational background of the person I'm speaking to, I sound either pretentious or pretentious and wrong.

There is even more, much more, discussion of the pronunciation of "pace" in this LH thread (in which I learn that I am apparently the only person left in the world who says it in what used to be considered the "correct" way, PAY-see).

> If I ever get my hands on the person who made the incorrect use of "begs the question" so popular these days...

If you're interested in facts beyond your own (doubtless satisfying) indignation, you can read a definitive account of the issue in this Language Log post by Mark Liberman (MeFi's own myl).
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


People who speak "ecclesiastical Latin" but don't know what a preposition is...

Nothing so interesting, unfortunately. I learned to read Latin off a page, pronounced roughly in the way that the Anglican and RC churches would expect me to, thanks to singing in several choirs when I was younger. I don't understand the language beyond a smattering of words picked up while singing religious music and studying biology.

Saying "modulo" or "pace" isn't about "fun", it's about showing your knowledge or your learning.
It can be about either or both. Letting people play around with rhythm, shades of nuance and obscure or anachronistic vocabulary can add another level of expression to the conversation, or just add texture like grace notes in a piece of music. I'm sure some of that could be interpreted as "aren't we clever" in-group behaviour, but some of it is purely for the joy of playing with language. It's not just a tool for conveying information, there's scope to have fun with it, in the right context. Language can be art.

There are also lots of people who spend chunks of our working days communicating and thinking in fairly technical language and end up, whether intentionally or not, using vocabulary and metaphors from that language in everyday conversation. Not because we're trying to show off, but simply because they express the desired concept and are at the top of our minds. Hence my computer science friends occasionally using "modulo" in casual conversation, or me occasionally using "conformation" to mean "shape that something can be folded in to": for most of our waking hours, it's a standard part of our vocabulary that everyone around us will understand.

Now, if I'm talking about science with a non-scientist audience, I will be paying close attention to my use of language and do my best to avoid specialist terms like that, to maximise clarity. But in a relaxed setting, speaking to friends with a generally nerdy background, a technical term might be the most concise way to express an idea. I'll use it because I think they'll understand, or just because I'm not paying that much attention. Its first usage or two might make understanding harder but, like any other vocabulary that I don't recognise, I can always work it out from context, ask, or look it up. I'm not trying to impress anyone, just to express an idea in the language that I use every day. Heck, I sometimes express thoughts in computing/physics vocabulary, because I know that the people I'm talking to will find that a comfortable way to hear it.

As an example of people complaining about words becoming more popular and people not using them "properly", I've had problems in the past when talking to non-scientists about synergy. Certain cancer medications are used together because that combination has a synergistic effect: A is 5% effective and B is 5% effective, but the combination AB is 30% effective. It's not a difficult concept, but if you're talking to someone who knows synergy as a business buzzword then you need to be really, really careful with your phrasing and probably avoid the word entirely. Otherwise, as soon as the word is uttered, the "wrong" (popular, less nuanced) definition will spring to mind and displace the concept that you were actually trying to convey.* So you can teach them about the effect, but you no longer have a word for the effect to use when talking to them.** Widespread misappropriation of technical or nuanced language can blunt otherwise useful tools. Which is annoying if they're words that make your job (/hobby/etc) easier.

It's definitely true that people use vocabulary to assert and asses status, in exactly the way that you describe, and that insecure people go hunting for new, impressive vocabulary like it's obscure, painstakingly-made coffee. It's also true that, in certain contexts, clarity is paramount and language should be simplified -- even standardised -- for maximum effect. But I think that making the flat statement that all use of unusual language is pretentious or obfuscatory, and should therefore be avoided, is going much too far.


*To be clear, I'm not a clinician and so would never have that conversation with a patient. I only talk about this stuff with the casually interested public.

**As an aside, I'd be interested to know whether "theory" fits that pattern, given all the bollocks we have to endure along the lines that "evolution is only a theory!".

posted by metaBugs at 11:38 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


So, Jehan, what status of yours do you want to mark by using only Basic English?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:40 AM on September 10, 2012


English is plusungood. Neologisms are doubleplusungood. We should use Newspeak instead. Newspeak is doubleplusgood.
posted by tempestuoso at 11:42 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, Jehan, what status of yours do you want to mark by using only Basic English?
Um, where did I say that? Basic English is a silly idea, I've never defended it. I only want folk to rethink why they use long and hard words. If they're really needed, as metaBugs says, then that's cool. If they're not though, think about what you're trying to do with them. Or rather, ask yourself why simpler words aren't as good.

This shouldn't even be controversial. It's standard advice for writing. English tends toward unneeded wordiness when written, and it doesn't reflect our speech. We have an odd relationship with words, where showing-off is acceptable in ways that in other fields just wouldn't be. Latinisms are like Veblen goods for the mouth, the rarer they are, the more folk will want to utter them.
English is plusungood. Neologisms are doubleplusungood. We should use Newspeak instead. Newspeak is doubleplusgood.
Naturally any individual promoting the utilization of quotidian verbalization in place of classical relexification is implicitly normalizing the modification of our linguistic communication to a preposterously rudimentary consequence.
posted by Jehan at 12:36 PM on September 10, 2012


Um, where did I say that? Basic English is a silly idea, I've never defended it.

Wasn't it this bit?
So, again, I guess we should use Basic English for everything?
Indeed my friend, that's exactly the point of my message. Well done, give yourself a gold star for understanding.
You're now going to say that was sarcasm, but I had no idea until you said you never defended Basic English.
posted by hoyland at 1:16 PM on September 10, 2012


Discussing "Basic English" is probably a derail, as it can refer to this artificially constructed/simplified language.

But Jehan, you said that "people use English to mark their status." I am still curious what status you want to mark for yourself by your advocacy and use of the particular variety you are advocating, whatever name we may give it (i.e. modulo naming).
posted by benito.strauss at 1:26 PM on September 10, 2012


I'm sorry if my sarcasm wasn't clear (I suppose it often isn't, at least in writing). I don't believe in Basic English, for the record. Or Newspeak, should anybody else feel the need to accuse me of that too. Or indeed, anything more awful than just wishing that folk were more critical of their word choice, and not use words they know aren't needed others aren't going to understand. Writing simply is a gift to the reader, and it costs nothing.
But Jehan, you said that "people use English to mark their status." I am still curious what status you want to mark for yourself by your advocacy and use of the particular variety you are advocating, whatever name we may give it (i.e. modulo naming).
I'm asking others to stop marking their status with language. I know we've been doing it for so long that it seems inbuilt, but we don't need to. Or at least, we can stop it when we're aware of it. I'm not really trying to show anything about myself, other than that I dislike complicated language. Language is a wonderful tool for sharing thoughts and ideas, but we've turned it into a tool for showing our status. Maybe humans always have a need to do that, I don't know, but I don't like it. At least we can try to raise ourselves above it, no?
posted by Jehan at 1:45 PM on September 10, 2012


Makes me think of "arguendo". I like using the word outside of legal settings precisely because it makes me sound like an ass.
posted by atomicstone at 1:47 PM on September 10, 2012


> I'm asking others to stop marking their status with language. I know we've been doing it for so long that it seems inbuilt, but we don't need to. Or at least, we can stop it when we're aware of it. I'm not really trying to show anything about myself [...]

I've been trying to stay out of this stupid derail, but I can't resist any more: you really seem to think it's as simple as that, which means you're blissfully unaware of millennia of philosophical and other discussion of language and how people use it. "Just write like I do! What's so hard about that? I write the right way!" Think about it for two seconds, will you? You say "I'm not really trying to show anything about myself," but that's what those people you accuse of showing off would say. You, of course, would accuse them of being disingenuous (uh-oh, a big word!) because they're using bigger words than you do. If someone uses smaller words than you do, you'd presumably accuse them of talking down or something. You, after all, are the measure of all things. Do you really not see how smug and utterly egocentric that is? You're "marking your status" just as much or as little as anyone else: γνῶθι σαυτόν, as the Greeks said.

People should use whatever words they feel adequate to their message; if you don't like their choice, feel free to ignore their message, but don't pretend that your personal preferences are an objective measuring-stick for all mankind. People use language in all sorts of ways, and yours is no better than anyone else's.
posted by languagehat at 2:15 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Prescriptivists are a threat to free speech and they must all be silenced.
posted by bukvich at 2:30 PM on September 10, 2012


I've been trying to stay out of this stupid derail, but I can't resist any more: you really seem to think it's as simple as that, which means you're blissfully unaware of millennia of philosophical and other discussion of language and how people use it. "Just write like I do! What's so hard about that? I write the right way!" Think about it for two seconds, will you? You say "I'm not really trying to show anything about myself," but that's what those people you accuse of showing off would say. You, of course, would accuse them of being disingenuous (uh-oh, a big word!) because they're using bigger words than you do. If someone uses smaller words than you do, you'd presumably accuse them of talking down or something. You, after all, are the measure of all things. Do you really not see how smug and utterly egocentric that is? You're "marking your status" just as much or as little as anyone else: γνῶθι σαυτόν, as the Greeks said.
Well, no, in a word, not even close. I'm not holding myself up as a standard, either for writing or understanding. I'm holding up the average person as a standard. When you can, write how the average person will understand. That's really good advice, every writer should seek to do this where they can. You accusations of egocentrism are misplaced, and fail to understand my point by a great way.
posted by Jehan at 2:32 PM on September 10, 2012


"modulo" is the plain speech version of "except for a few big things I have to do that don't really affect the result much qualitatively".

It seems to me that the difference between "modulo" and "except for" is a "a thing that doesn't really affect the result much qualitatively." I could say "This report is done except for the formatting" or "this report is done modulo the formatting." The only practical difference is that the former would be universally understood by English speakers (including those who know what modulo means) and the latter would not. A very small number of ardent modulo-users might twitch a little at some perceived imprecision, I guess. English carried on just fine without the word for centuries, after all.

What would be useful was if English had the concept of circa or ca (or even ~), for talking about rough numbers: circa 100 people will come to the party. It's more precise than using around, which is the nearest equivalent.

I see ~ used fairly often (e.g. "~100 people will come to the party"). Also, circa literally means "around." There's not really any additional precision implied by it.
posted by jedicus at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So basically, "except for" notwithstanding and despite "other than", "modulo" modulo "notwithstanding" is a completely new word except for "despite".
posted by kyrademon at 3:01 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Naturally any individual promoting the utilization of quotidian verbalization in place of classical relexification is implicitly normalizing the modification of our linguistic communication to a preposterously rudimentary consequence.

Are you by any change a script writer for Sir Humprey Appleby?

English is my second language, and I love playing around with it like he did. One of my favourite things he does is using excessive language:
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Prime Minister, I must protest in the strongest possible terms my profound opposition to a newly instituted practice which imposes severe and intolerable restrictions upon the ingress and egress of senior members of the hierarchy and which will, in all probability, should the current deplorable innovation be perpetuated, precipitate a constriction of the channels of communication, and culminate in a condition of organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis which will render effectively impossible the coherent and co-ordinated discharge of the function of government within Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Jim Hacker: You mean you've lost your key?

posted by DreamerFi at 3:27 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


When you can, write how the average person will understand.

1. Who is this "average person" you mention? Is a person something that can be averaged? Do I just sum up the collective vocabulary of <language X> and divide by N, where <language X> is the language in which I'm communicating, and N is the quantity of people able to communicate in the chosen medium? Do I chart out some sort of standard deviation of words such that I can't use those that fall outside that range?

2. On the big assumption that (1) could ever be determined with any accuracy, perhaps the "average person" is not the person with whom you have any desire to communicate.

It seems to me one should use words that are most readily understood by, and that most efficiently convey information to, the audience with whom one intends to communicate. If you are speaking to an erudite audience, use words that do not insult the audience's erudition. If you are communicating with the masses, use small words loaded with meaning and don't be surprised when people misinterpret what you intend (I'm looking at you, "right to bear arms").

I use the word "modulo" all the time. But I am a programmer, and it has come up in my circles fairly often for many years (I first heard the word used in a programming class when I was in high school in the 1980s). Sometimes people in programmers' circles move on to different jobs, but their vocabularies follow them. Words are sort of like burrs that way. They stick to you and follow you around until they fall off and plant themselves in a completely foreign environment where they are neither recognized nor welcome. And they are hard to get rid of once they've taken root.

Actually, that analogy works for knowledge in general as well.
posted by tempestuoso at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not sure about the preposition, but the nerdiest past participle is definitely striven.
posted by anothermug at 3:55 PM on September 10, 2012


The nasty thing about modulo as a preposition is it's almost an antonym. The reason we have the MOD construction is the precise amount of difference can be critical to maintain its correct value for proper continuing execution of the program; it ain't a fuzzy logic operator. The English usage is "there is at least one apparently significant different detail here but it's really very minor". It's an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence except it's self-contained.

Feel free to use it if you want; I can grok your usage but I shall abstain.
posted by bukvich at 4:16 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I'm not holding myself up as a standard, either for writing or understanding. I'm holding up the average person as a standard.

And you, of course, know all about this mythical "average person" and how he or she uses words.

I'm starting to think you don't want to get it.
posted by languagehat at 5:25 PM on September 10, 2012


When you can, write how the average person will understand. That's really good advice, every writer should seek to do this where they can.

When people paid me to be a writer, I always aimed to write so that my audience would understand. Silly me.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:53 PM on September 10, 2012


And you, of course, know all about this mythical "average person" and how he or she uses words.

I'm starting to think you don't want to get it.
I'm sorry, but is this your argument? "There's no such thing as the average person, and its all makebelieve for pushing your personal prescriptivism." I mean, that's very weak, and borders on a personal attack. Upthread I was accused of assuming the motivations of others, and now you're assuming my motivations. This all seems rather hypocritical, don't you think? Your earlier comment didn't discuss the issue either, but just insulted me for a lack of introspection and displaying egocentricism. None of which you've proven, but just asserted.

Putting that to one side, and pretending that you're discussing this in good faith, then yes you can empirically know the vocabulary of the average person. Measurements of vocabulary size have been made for many years, and that includes what specific words people know. The very fact that you can answer a fifty question test and get an estimate of your vocabulary size shows that the "average" isn't some mystical thing I've made up. But then, I'm sure you know this.

Of course, we shouldn't need to do that, and common sense should let folk know what words are and are not likely to be understood.

If you don't want to discuss this properly, you could enlighten me as to what you think my actual motive is? I'm hardly saying more than what you would be told in the average composition class, but it seems to rankle people. I really don't understand why. It's bizarre that otherwise normal people take offense at such a suggestion.
posted by Jehan at 5:56 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Language is a wonderful tool for sharing thoughts and ideas

But if that were all language were, language would be a sad, shriveled thing indeed.
posted by escabeche at 6:03 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jehan, I don't know if I'm taking a minor point of yours and treating like your entire argument, but you seem to be saying:
Write to the average (WTA),
whereas one of the first things I was taught in composition class was
Consider your audience (CYA).
I think CYA is vastly more important than WTA. Are you saying WTA much more important?
posted by benito.strauss at 6:27 PM on September 10, 2012


I think CYA is vastly more important than WTA. Are you saying WTA much more important?
I think considering your audience is important, but you should write to the average where you can, because, outside of a specific field, your audience may well be otherwise average. If the audience calls for more technical language, then use it, undoubtedly. I know that most fields have their own jargon, and that's really okay, as the average person in that field would understand it, and the average person outside the field isn't likely to be reading it. "Modulo" in, say, a mathematics text, is fine, and there's no reason why it wouldn't be. But that should neither let us write in complicated language outside of those technical terms, nor use complicated and technical language outside of specific fields.

For all that some folk may have much larger vocabularies than others, they don't needfully share the same words. So if you know five thousand words above the average but they're all about physics or chemistry, and somebody else knows five thousand words above the average but they're all about philosophy or ethics, you're only like to share the average vocabulary. Of course, that's a very crude example, but points out the problem with technical and complicated words. Above a certain point we don't all know the same words, which we might be expected to below a certain point. If 10% of English speakers know more than 35,000 words (as an example figure), the 35,001st most common word isn't known by 10% of English speakers, but rather much less. Writing to the average is about capturing shared vocabulary, even though some may know much more in certain areas.

I hope that makes sense, and maybe my point about writing to the average should be hedged somewhat, but it should give folk a better idea of where I'm coming from with this. I tend to always keep in mind my parents, who, despite being of average intelligence, often need help with written things because the language is so complicated. It's a kind of functional illiteracy, I suppose, as they can easy understand the message, they just can't always understand the way it is written. I guess lots of people must be the same, and I can't help but think that unnecessarily complex writing is exclusionary. I don't expect them--or any uneducated person--to be able to read academic or technical writing, but sometimes even everyday stuff is out of their reach. We shouldn't wilfully make it even harder, it just seems so pointless and spiteful.
posted by Jehan at 7:19 PM on September 10, 2012


I've only ever seen 'modulo' used where it could also take the form of 'give or take', which contains the same number of syllables but isn't in the nerd formal language that modulo is in.
posted by gadge emeritus at 7:39 PM on September 10, 2012


Well Jehan, I understand what you are saying, but I go by very different principles. I'm all about "consider your audience". It might be because I am (overly?) proud of my ability to gauge and adapt myself to the people I'm communicating with. I've got repertoires for casual/formal, native/non-native speaker, different age groups, love/distaste for complexity, etc., etc..

It's also very dependent on the size of the group. As you're speaking to more and more people, you necessarily have to restrict your language. If I were writing for a general interest magazine I'd be restricting my vocabulary. But I doubt if anything I've written was ever read by more than 100 people. What's the situation you're imagining your advice to apply to? More specifically, could you give an example of the unnecessarily complicated written language that has troubled your parents? [In my case, multi-lingual mish-mashes of prolix esoterica is the best way to communicate with my Father, so we're definitely coming from different backgrounds.]

The other thing I've realized is that instead of the "average" vocabulary, what you're describing is more like the "lowest common denominator" in language. (Though in the technical spirit of this post, it's actually the greatest lower bound / infimum of the vocabularies.) I wonder if anybody's objections would go away if you used that term?
posted by benito.strauss at 9:31 PM on September 10, 2012


The reason we have the MOD construction is the precise amount of difference can be critical to maintain its correct value for proper continuing execution of the program; it ain't a fuzzy logic operator.

For me, from math, the word definitely has the sense of taking something that is kind of fuzzy, problematic, intractable, and removing some part of it, something that ran all the way up through it, and the result being something that (kind of magically, now) can be handled. It can be this powerful and transformative thing, and that may be why it sticks in the mind. It definitely has connotations that "except for" and "save for" don't have.

Using it in everyday speech, though, is like opening a beer bottle with a light saber. Best done as a joke. "Modulo zombies" is perfect.

I imagine people who encounter it mostly through computers might think of it as that niggling reminder of the machine context, and to them it means, something more like "except for [minor, annoying, yet of course critical thing]" I'd kind of suggest that those who think "modulo"'s job in life is to be an arithmetic operator in a computer program are missing its real meaning.
posted by fleacircus at 3:54 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The reason we have the MOD construction is the precise amount of difference can be critical to maintain its correct value for proper continuing execution of the program; it ain't a fuzzy logic operator

As fleacircus alludes to above, the prepositional meaning is derived more directly from math, not programming. But even in programming part of the whole point of the mod operator is that you're now operating on whole classes instead of individual numbers. All multiples of five, all multiples of 6 + 1, all even numbers, etc. Not a fuzzy logic operator, no, but something that creates equivalences.
posted by kmz at 6:14 AM on September 11, 2012


> I'm hardly saying more than what you would be told in the average composition class, but it seems to rankle people.

Because you are treating life as a composition class. People tell toddlers all sorts of things they wouldn't dream of telling adults; toddlers need to hear those things and need clear rules and boundaries, while adults are grown up and capable of making their own decisions. It may be a good thing for composition students to be told that in general they should not use too abstruse a vocabulary, to keep the "average person" in mind, but that has nothing to do with language use in general, and it boggles my mind (and yes, irritates me greatly) that you refuse to see the difference. You have no more business telling grown people not taking a class from you how to write than you would going up to someone at a party and patting them on the head or telling them "play nice!" It is absurd and insulting to claim that anyone who uses words you think are too big or rare or something that they are "engaging in the pretense of a classical learning they neither have nor want" and "insecure." Which reminds me: yes, you were "assuming the motivations of others," so don't try to deny or fudge it.
posted by languagehat at 7:14 AM on September 11, 2012


It's also very dependent on the size of the group. As you're speaking to more and more people, you necessarily have to restrict your language. If I were writing for a general interest magazine I'd be restricting my vocabulary. But I doubt if anything I've written was ever read by more than 100 people. What's the situation you're imagining your advice to apply to? More specifically, could you give an example of the unnecessarily complicated written language that has troubled your parents? [In my case, multi-lingual mish-mashes of prolix esoterica is the best way to communicate with my Father, so we're definitely coming from different backgrounds.]

The other thing I've realized is that instead of the "average" vocabulary, what you're describing is more like the "lowest common denominator" in language. (Though in the technical spirit of this post, it's actually the greatest lower bound / infimum of the vocabularies.) I wonder if anybody's objections would go away if you used that term?
When I think of the things my parents have asked for help with on a specific word, they range from books, to newspapers, letters, websites, indeed really anything written. That's not to say everything is hard, for often it is only a word here or there. The body of the text is understood by them, but because a word has been dropped in that they don't understand, it can ruin their ability to understand it. I know they tend to skip over them, or just assume what the meaning might be from context, but sometimes keep a list and point them out to me. Often I can't help but sigh at the words, things like "celerity" or "enervate", because they're little more than synonyms for simpler words. Why did somebody feel the need to drop them into a text? Maybe I shouldn't assume they're showing-off because they're insecure, but if they thought such word "enrich" the work, then they should know that they significantly degrade it for many readers.

That said, I don't really feel it should be "lowest common denominator". There will always be people with very restricted vocabularies, and you can't possibly write with everybody in mind. But you can write so that more people understand than don't, so that more people find your words useful than baffling. People can choose to write how they like, of course, but I won't stop questioning what benefit they actually bring to writing, when the disadvantages are clear.
posted by Jehan at 8:16 AM on September 11, 2012


You have no more business telling grown people not taking a class from you how to write than you would going up to someone at a party and patting them on the head or telling them "play nice!"
I can question how people use word if I want, and ask that they defend such use. It's a debate, a discussion, a chance to exchange views. If you feel like I've attacked you personally, than I'm sorry, that was never my intention. But I still don't understand why I've rankled people so much by suggesting that some might use long word to show-off. Maybe I hit a nerve?
posted by Jehan at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2012


Often I can't help but sigh at the words, things like "celerity" or "enervate", because they're little more than synonyms for simpler words.

Mark Twain famously wrote that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. I would much rather that a writer use a brilliant, perfect, evocative word than one that means kinda the same thing to make sure that everyone reading feels included and no one is in danger of learning anything.

I can question how people use word if I want, and ask that they defend such use.

Why do you feel this to be the case? I can tell you that if someone continually needled me about using "obscure" words, I would think that person either a simpleton or a self-satisfied pest.

But I still don't understand why I've rankled people so much by suggesting that some might use long word to show-off.


And that disingenuousness may in itself be the problem. As languagehat stated fairly clearly above, insisting that everyone around you conform to your own idiosyncratic standards of language usage is perhaps not an ideal way to live one's life. It seems the linguistic equivalent of the observation that everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and everyone who drives faster is a maniac.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:52 AM on September 11, 2012


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