Sunday, May 29, 2005

Precise

pre·cise  
adj.

  1. Clearly expressed or delineated; definite: The victim gave a precise description of the suspect.
  2. Exact, as in performance, execution, or amount; accurate or correct: a precise measurement; a precise instrument.
  3. Strictly distinguished from others; very: at that precise moment.
  4. Distinct and correct in sound or meaning: precise pronunciation; precise prose.
  5. Conforming strictly to rule or proper form: “The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists that lived at New Plymouth” (Thomas Morton).

I like the first and second meanings there, and I sometimes think our profession is lacking in them.  Working on my book and having the reviewers go over it just drives this home.  Any generalization, any broad sweeping statement, they point it out.  The comments I’ve been receiving on the apress comment site have been fantastic in elevating the degree of preciseness as well.  I feel it will be a much better book this time simply due to the public criticism in addition to the formal review process.  I was afraid to release “Effective Oracle by Design” after seeing how many mistakes the “public” review team found that the formal review team didn’t — and since only the first 3 or 4 chapters were done publically, I was worried about the rest. 

But it made me stop and think about the idea.  What prevents meaning one above from happening? 

Many things — such as fancy “50 cent words”, that is using a fancy, “big” word when a simple one will do.  I used the word “loathe” in a set of slides once.  Loathe is a word with immediate meaning to me, however – in countries where English is not the native language that is a 50 cent word that isn’t taught.  I remember on the third day of a five day seminar tour in Europe, someone finally asked “what is that word — loathe”.  I polled the audience, no one — not one person, knew what it meant.  On the subsequent two days, I polled again.  A 100% miss ratio, no one could define it.  I felt bad for the audience in the first two days (but no one asked!).  I’ve removed it since, but it drove home the problem.  Speak simply and plainly.  Avoid “50 cent words”.  But, conversely, everyone out there — ASK.  If someone speaking in an educational session is using big fancy words that you don’t understand, please — ASK.  At least during a break, ASK.  The speaker will (should) adjust their talk accordingly.  Talking internationally over the last two/three years has driven this home for me.  Analogies that make sense here (in the US) don’t make sense over there (anywhere other than US, substitute your country in for US). 

You will not believe how old I was before I understood the phrase “Penny wise, Pound foolish” and what it truly meant.  It was my first business trip with Oracle, in 1993, to the UK.  I had never put the “pound” part together with “a denomination of money”.  I was asking myself for many years “why compare money to a unit of weight?”.

Many things — such as not speaking clearly, or assuming a level of knowledge the audience you are speaking (or writing to) doesn’t have.  When working on the comments by the reviewers, I have to address each one.  Either I say “Yes, I agree and did X to fix it”, “No, that comment isn’t correct and here is why”, or “What, you mean you couldn’t actually read my mind and figure out what I meant :) — I’ve clarified the original text with Y”.  I use the last one infrequently (fortunately) but it happens.  I am so close to the problem/feature/function I’m describing that I make assumptions about what the reader might know or be thinking.  I leave out the “obvious” sometimes.  Only problem is what is plainly obvious to me, isn’t so obvious.  It is obvious to me because, well, because of my past experiences and the fact I’ve been looking at the issue for the last couple of hours. 

But what about meaning two:

 2. Exact, as in performance, execution, or amount; accurate or correct: a precise measurement; a precise instrument.

This is the one I think we (collective we, everyone writing “stuff” on the Internet, books, elsewhere) miss most of all. We are not always precise in our writing, in our works.  I try to be — and in the public eye with the ability for someone to immediately followup and say “yeah but” on the site, I think the preciseness always ends up being there.  Having the interactive site has taught me a lot over the years.

Use simple words — not because of simple minds, but rather the opposite.  Lots of really smart minds, thinking in a language that is not their first choice.  This is 50% of the reason why I come down so much on the “instant messenger speak” such as “r u able to plz help me out?”  Think about it – if the person reading that does not use English as their native language, that is just a bunch of letters strung together.  Some have said of my criticism of that style of writing “you are making fun of non-English speakers”, but I know that I am not.  Non-native English speakers are the ones that have the most issues with that style of writing.  In order for them to be comfortable enough with the language, they are taught the real words.  Those ‘abbreviations’ are meaningless to them. I recently said I was working on the 2cd edition.  That is an abbreviation I’ve seen and it was obvious to me what it meant.  It was meaningless to many outside of English speaking countries (2nd would be fine, 2cd not so fine but second would say it all). 

Clear, unambiguous use of words.  Recently, I used the word “actionable” in a blog entry.  I used it totally wrong (look it up in the dictionary, there is no way I would even be using that word).  I made up a meaning to go with it — to me, it should have meant ‘a statement one can take action on’.  I used it previously in talks with my editor “Sorry, but so and so is not providing any actionable comments — I don’t know what to do with their feedback”.  But, it was totally wrong, I made up the meaning.  We must strive to be very clear in how we write and to write material that someone can actually make use of.

It probably sounds like I’ve been rambling, but I’ve been reading a lot of material out there recently with a more critical eye.  Speaking (writing) clearly, with unambiguous meaning, globally “safe” analogies, and providing information that someone can walk away with and find immediate benefit — that is lacking. 

We need more unambiguous, clear material we can make use of. 

On a side note, I was reading Mark Rittmans blog and it pointed me to "When Smart People Defend Bad Ideas".  That was a pretty good article, suggested reading.

On a second side note, I really do think that technical web pages that do not have a “post a comment” link are bad.  Every day I increase in my mind the level of “bad” they are.  How many web pages have I ended up on that I’d really like to add a “yeah but” to the bottom of it — that is my goal in life after getting everyone to appreciate fully the beauty of bind variables.  Every site should have a comments section for the pages.

POST A COMMENT

15 Comments:

Anonymous Martin (Netherlands) said....

“what is that word — loathe”

I didn't know that word no, but to me 90% of unknown words make sense if they are written in a complete sentence/story.

So, In your book it would not be that much of a problem.. in a powerpoint (yuck) presentation though it would be a problem for us 'foreigners'.I really abhor fancy words during presentations ;-)

Mon May 30, 05:31:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Jeff Hunter said....

On a second side note, I really do think that technical web pages that do not have a “post a comment” link are bad.
Yeah, but if you know everything and are close minded, why would you want someone else's input? ;)

Mon May 30, 01:19:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Peter K said....

There is sense in all these proverbs and sayings. For example, K.I.S.S. is the greatest yardstick.

For those who don't know, K.I.S.S. stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid". Keeping things simple ensure that there is very little opportunity for mis-understanding.

I remembered once in the UK, I asked friends whether they want to "go for a spin" in the new company car and all I got were blank looks :D

Mon May 30, 01:25:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Yeah, but if you know everything

I am not talking just about any single particular site. DBAZine for example is looking right now into doing this (letting reader post comments/caveats on the articles).

SearchOracle really *should*. And it shouldn't be an email to the author -- it should just be a public statement (and the ability for the author to be notified). For sometimes the author(s) won't make a change or even acknowledge the problem -- and then what. That "rate this article" isn't even close enough to being sufficient.

I remember it took me a while to get a series of articles removed from dbasupport once (it was a 'tuning' series of papers. It was like reading an "opposite day" paper -- everything was the opposite of what it should have been). If only I could have just posted evidence that the points made were really wrong, I could have been done with it. As it was -- spent lots of back and forth to get it retracted. DBAsupport didn't pull it, the author did.

I just think it is becoming more and more of a problem. Since everyone can write -- they do. And bad material just explodes.


Maybe if everyone writes in to these sites with a serious email saying this -- it'll happen (hint hint :)

Mon May 30, 01:41:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Paul said....

" go for a spin "
Peter - I'm convinced 95% of the adult population in the U.K would understand that phrase, so I'm rather gobsmacked by what you say!
(Gobsmacked = surprised in the U.K.)

Mon May 30, 04:58:00 PM EDT  

Blogger scubajim said....

Excellent little book about writing precisely and simply - Strunk and White's The Elements of Style .(http://www.bartleby.com/141/)

I really cringe at the use of utilize Just use use.

Mon May 30, 11:26:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Peter K said....

Peter - I'm convinced 95% of the adult population in the U.K would understand that phrase, so I'm rather gobsmacked by what you say!

Paul, I was surprised too when I got the blank looks. I had to explain and this was back in the early 80's. We all joked about it afterwards and pointing out some differences in usage of words (e.g. lorry vs 16-wheeler, wc vs washroom, etc.) :D

Tue May 31, 12:47:00 AM EDT  

Blogger David Aldridge said....

Every now and then I like to reassure myself of my sanity with a browse of the Economist magazine's Style Guide ...
http://www.economist.com/research/StyleGuide/

In particular I like the section the section on "Unnecessary Words". Once you start noticing them you'll find them to be a new source of irritation and stress in your life that may render television news unwatchable. Well, unlistenable really.

Today my kids were watching "Brother Bear" in the car, and I was treated to the phrase "... from the Academy Award-nominated motion picture event ..." which I think means "film that won no awards".

Oooh, something that irritates me ... why is a preview always described as "sneak"?

I could go on forever.

I remember that DBASupport.com article. Ironically it's what got me onto that site, about 4,200 posts ago.

Tue May 31, 01:02:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Nicola said....

This is 50% of the reason why I come down so much on the “instant messenger speak” such as “r u able to plz help me out?” Think about it – if the person reading that does not use English as their native language, that is just a bunch of letters strung together
Well I have not a good knowledge of english (my tongue-language is italian), but abbreviation don't "hurt" me. Maybe the sound helps..
What I found difficult reading your site are the "idiomatic" sentences.
Something like "dead on.." and so on and others (i don't remember now)
But I would not want you to limit these. It is an occasion to learn something about spoken language

Tue May 31, 09:53:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Gabe said....

Well, English is not my first language either (though, for anything technical, it actually is) and I can usually follow the IM speak.

However, the point (as I see it) is: one comes to Tom’s site and there is fair warning IM speak is not welcomed … one doesn’t need to rationalize why is it so or anything, it just is. Overlooking that request from the host lays somewhere between carelessness and outright rudeness. And it surely is very little compared to what one gets back in return.

The second point (as I see it) is: it sounds presumptions. We’re professionals and asktom is a professional outfit … hence, where is all this buddy-buddy talk come from? One doesn’t go into the doctor’s office and start with “What’s up doc? How’s the family? Give my regards to the missus!” … unless maybe they have a personal history together.

Does anybody like close talkers? A bit of space, please.

Tue May 31, 01:19:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Bill S. said....

I agree with Gabe. Nothing can cloud the issue faster than some obscure (or not so obscure) abbreviations that may have more than one meaning. :D

Tue May 31, 02:16:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Gabe said....

I hope my rant doesn’t appear to somehow respond to Nicola … not my intention. I’m certain I’ve done my fair share of “shortcutting” … it is the “how r u? I’m gr8” kind of things that I find difficult to digest.

Tue May 31, 02:21:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tom,

Once again, I'd like to suggest, Tom's Bookshelf. IMHO, that's what is badly needed: a voice of professionalism, thoughtfulness, intellectual honesty, and integrity; all the good things I can find on AskTom.com, even though I don't work with Oracle technologies on a daily basis...

Wed Jun 01, 09:52:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Eliza Kyte said....

Just wanted to say you have an interesting site. I am looking for relatives with the name KYTE. My father was Frank C Kyte and you resemble him a lot. starfyre47@charter.net

Thu Jun 02, 10:15:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

I really cringe at the use of utilize

oh great, another word I have to remember to not use ;)

http://www.economist.com/research/StyleGuide/
that was really good, thanks for that link!


Eliza

I'll ask my Dad if that name rings a bell with him. He is Richard Jay Kyte and his father was Charles Kyte.

Fri Jun 03, 09:10:00 AM EDT  

POST A COMMENT

<< Home