Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tinpicking: What's The Difference?

I want to compliment a tiny matter. Please pardon my neologism. I couldn't think of an antonym for nitpick.

I was just reading Jeff Atwood's post, Keeping Time on the PC, which talks about the inaccuracies of the clocks built into computers. (Believe it or not, it's quite interesting.)

At one point, he says (emph. mine):

There's a clever PC time drift graph on this webpage derived from the difference between JavaScript time on the client, and the server time the webpage was sent to the client.

Thank you for not saying "differential," Jeff.

I have a special loathing for people who use differential when they mean difference. This is even worse than utilizing utilize instead of using use. It's as bad as saying "The boss met with Joe and I" or "The student was disinterested in the lecture."

To my mind, differential should be reserved for discussions involving a particular aspect of calculus or a specific part of a car's rear axle. The error probably started with suits and sales dweebs. Whatever the origin, it has infected all manner of telepundits and spokesdrones. For the past few years, differential seems to have been the sole page in the Power Word of the Day calendars belonging to TV sports commentators; e.g., "If they kick a field goal here, there's still a four-point differential in the score."

There is a difference between accepting our language as a living thing and insisting on precision. Kudos to Jeff for getting this right.

Spleen vented. Thank you for your attention.


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother.

WordzGuy said...

Well, good luck with this. The likelihood of a usage that has escaped into the wild being corralled and tamed is usually around 0%. (cf. ain't)

I am sad to read your observation that "The error probably started with suits and sales dweebs" and the phrase "telepundits and spokesdrones." This suggests that you feel that language belongs to an educated elite. (And one that is allowed neologisms whenever it suits a purpose!) (tinpicking).

It's interesting to read proposals for why people believe certain usages are better than others, but really, is it useful to imply that people whose usage you don't agree with are morons?

bjkeefe said...

Well said, Wordzguy. I have been thinking about your comment since the day that you posted it. I have yet to come up with a killer response, but here are some thoughts.

You're probably right about the uselessness of arguing against mistakes that have escaped their cages. I sometimes feel as though I am tilting at windmills, and it's often embarrassing to realize how much I sound like Miss Thistlebottom.

But I love the English language. The people who raised me and taught me did, too. They left me with a feeling that it is sometimes worth fighting the good fight, despite the low probability of success in any particular battle. I try not to be too rigid about this, but I will always agree with Strunk and White, who said that we should know the rules, so that when one must be broken, we can do so elegantly.

Regarding my elitism:

Yes, I am more than a bit of a snob about usage, I suppose. I used to worry about this. Then I heard Richard Dawkins say something like: Sure, I'm an elitist. What's wrong with that, as long as you want others to join you?

Regarding neologisms, and the creation thereof:

To my mind, a neologism is not the same thing as misusing an existing word. I like neologisms. Sometimes we truly need new words, and our language is made richer with their births. Blog is, admittedly, not the most euphonious of words, but it got there first and it does a job that no other word already did. At the next tier, we find slight expansions of usage that work better, because they provide succinctness; e.g., I was an early advocate for reference (the verb). Even slang and jargon can merit permanent inclusion -- I like to Google.

What I don't like is when an existing word is misused when a good word already exists. In the specific case of this post, what part of difference don't you understand? (Not you, specifically, Wordzguy.)

To channel Dan Quayle, my irritation with the misuse of differential can be summed up in one word: to be precise.

We already have enough problems sharing our ideas without being like, whatever, about the meanings of our nouns. Differential and difference have distinct definitions. Using the former in place of the latter is just plain stupid. Worse, it reeks of phoniness. People who do this intentionally are usually guilty of gussying up banalities with chrome.

Uh-oh. Elitism again!