Erik McClure

Programmers Should Take Linguistics


The older I get, the more I realize that 90% of all disagreements or social drama results from a miscommunication of some kind. Every time I wind up having to resolve a dispute, I’ll try to get both sides of the story, only to realize that they’re the same story, and both parties were actually either in agreement or fighting over a perceived insult that never actually existed. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate amount of this miscommunication often involves programmers being far too strict with their interpretations of what certain words mean.

A linguistics class teaches you about what a language actually is - a bunch of sounds that we mutually agree mean certain things. Language is, intrinsically, a social construct. The correct definition of a word is whatever the majority of your primary social circle thinks it is. However, this also means that if you interact with a secondary social circle, and they all think the word means something else, then whenever you interact with them, it really does mean something else. Language is inherently contextual, and the possible meanings of a word can change based on who is saying it and to whom they’re saying it to. If everyone else on Earth has decided that ‘literally’ can also mean ‘figuratively’, then it does, even if the dictionary says otherwise. It also means most people don’t actually care if you say jif or gif, they’ll just say whatever pronunciation gets you to shut up about it.

It’s important to realize that a word’s meaning is not defined by a dictionary, but rather by how people use it. The dictionary is simply a reflection of it’s usage, and is generally a few years out of date. Just as the pronunciation of a word can vary by dialect, so can the potential meanings of a word. Meanings can be invented by regional subdialects and spread outward from there, which is the origin of many slang terms. Sometimes we invent entirely new words, like “dubstep”, but young words may have fuzzy definitions. In some dialects of electronic music listeners, “dubstep” is not actually a a specific genre, but instead refers to all electronic music. Using dubstep to refer to any electronic song is currently incorrect if used in general parlance, because most people think it is referring to a very specific kind of music. However, if this usage of the word continues to be popularized, eventually the meaning of the word will change into a synonym for electronica, and the dictionaries will be updated to reflect this.

The fluid nature of language is why prescriptive grammar is almost always unnecessary, unless you are deliberately conforming to a grammar standard for a specific medium, such as writing a story. In almost any other context, so long as everyone in your social group understands your ‘dialect’ of English, then it is valid grammar. However, if you attempt to use this dialect outside of your social circle with people who are not familiar with it, you will once again be in the wrong, as they will have no idea what you’re talking about. This, however, does not mean there are no mandatory grammar rules, it’s just that most of the rules that are actually necessary to speak the language properly are usually so ingrained that you don’t even think about them.

A fantastic example of this is a little known rule in English where all adjectives must come in a very specific order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife, but if you switch the order of any of those adjectives you’ll sound like a maniac. Conversely, you can never have a green great dragon. Despite the fact that this grammar rule is basically never talked about in any prescriptive grammar book, it is mandatory because if you don’t follow it you won’t be speaking proper English and people will have difficulty understanding you. True grammar rules are ones that, if not followed, result in nonsensical sentences that are difficult or impossible to parse correctly.

However, this does not mean all sentences that are difficult to understand have incorrect grammar. In fact, even some words are completely ambiguous by default. If I say I’m “dusting an object”, the meaning of the phrase is completely dependent on what the object is. If it’s a cake, I’m probably dusting it with something. If it’s a shelf, I’m probably dusting it to get rid of the dust.

Programmers tend to be very literal minded people, and often like to think that language is a set of strict rules defined by their English class. In reality, language is a fluid, dynamic, ambiguous, constantly changing enigma that exists entirely because we all agree on what a bunch of sounds mean. We need to recognize this, and when we communicate to other people, we need to be on the lookout for potential misinterpretations of what we say, so we can provide clarifications when possible. If someone says something that seems ridiculous, ask them to clarify. I’m tired of resolving disagreements that exist only because nobody stopped to ask the other side to clarify what they meant.

Stop demanding that everyone explain things in a way you’ll understand. That’s impossible, because everyone understands language slightly differently. Instead, ask for clarification if someone seems to be saying something unusual or before you debate a point they made. Maybe then we can keep the debates to actual disagreements, instead of arguing over communication failures.


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