DRMacIver's Notebook

Why do we need new terminology?

Why do we need new terminology?

This piece is off the back of People are bad at defining things. You should read that piece first. You don’t strictly need to read that piece first, but this post will have a lot more context if you do.

When you try to write using only easy to understand words, it can be hard to say what you mean because you have to use many words where a smaller number will do. As well as making it harder to write, this can make it harder to read, because every time you want to use the thing that you talked about in many words you have to use all those words again.

When you do this it helps more people to understand what you have written, but every single person who could understand the shorter way of writing it will find it harder to understand the longer way of writing it because each time they read those many words they have to make sure it is the same thing.

Sometimes it helps to make up new words that you can use instead of the many words that you would have to write. This makes it easier for people to read what you have written because you can use the word you made up each time you would have written many words and they know it means the same thing each time.

I wrote that in the upgoer five text editor, which requires you to write using only the ten hundred most common words (thousand is not in the thousand most common words you see), and it was kinda annoying.

What I wanted to say is this: Using a small vocabulary helps more people understand what you write, but it makes the text much longer. As a result, every person who could understand the larger vocabulary easily will tend to find it easier to understand the version that uses it fully, because each new word replaces a concept that took many words in the smaller vocabulary. Reading that single word each time is faster and doesn’t require people to read the longer phrase to understand that you mean the same thing each time. As a result, it’s often useful to introduce new terms that represent complicated concepts you’re talking about to give people a handle on the concept they can use while reading your text.

I don’t know that the version with the larger vocabulary is that much better than the version in up goer five. I’m certainly happier with it, but I think for short texts it doesn’t matter that much and it’s repetition over the course of a longer text that matters.

Also sometimes you have a thing that you don’t totally understand yet and it is nice to have a word that you can use to mean that thing while you talk around it. You can show things that are not what you mean and things that are what you mean, but you can’t say exactly what it is you mean. Here it’s really important to have a single word for it so you don’t have to keep saying “that thing that I mean and am talking around”.

Which, translated out of upgoer five, is to say: Sometimes you have a concept that you don’t know how to define precisely and want to talk about, and you can’t just keep saying “that concept that I haven’t defined yet that I introduced back there”, you need some sort of placeholder you can talk about.

This is why I talked about example-based definitions: You introduce the terminology, and you do your best to convey the rough sense of what you mean and provide examples to help refine it. By introducing a new word, you have given yourself the ability to talk about something that you would previously only have been able to talk around.

To summarise all of this: We sometimes need new terminology because, used well, it helps you communicate what you mean in a way that people will find easier to understand.

If this feels like an alien concept, very different to your experience of how people use novel terminology, yes that’s right. That’s why I’m complaining about people using definitions badly.