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Precise Language: It's All Relative

The term "precise language" has come up twice in the past few weeks in way that highlight the difference between computer science people and other people. (I wouldn't want to call them "regular" people.)

I am involved in a project where we asked education graduate students, "How would you describe someone who is 'techie'?" One of the most interesting responses (from someone who went to an East Coast Institute of Technology) was that techies use precise language.

While I wouldn't have thought of it, that answer immediately resonated with me, from all the times I've had my vague language corrected to the very way that the techies I know talk all the time.

Then, this weekend I was sitting at a table with a bunch of techies computer science educators who were discussing whether an important part of computer science is using "accurate and precise language" to communicate. They were extremely concerned that if precision is an important descriptor that it will lead students to a level of detail that's too great for an introductory CS class. Indeed, one of the techiest senior members of the group wanted to substitute "simple language" for "precise language" in order to encourage a higher level of abstraction than he felt "precise language" would elicit.

This, it seems, is one of the very differences between computer science people and humanities people (to broadly generalize). Regular people think that the kind of way computer scientists talk all the time is precise language. Computer scientists think they talk regular and that precise language is even more detailed. I think of the math or English teachers I know, for whom "simple language" would entail a level of vagueness and abstraction that isn't what the document intended and that "accurate and precise" would be the appropriate amount of correctness.

I'd say it's all a matter of perspective, but I suspect that some computer science educators would point out that perspective is something they teach in art and English...

Michelle Hutton
CSTA President


Interesting question(s) lurking just below the surface of your post ...

I don't think that it's a matter of "usage" as much as it is a matter of interpretation, or, more precisely, context. To say that when I am teaching computer science that I am using language more precisely then when I am teaching philosophy (yes, I have degrees in both Computer Science and Philosophy) is not quite right. Rather, I use language *differently* in one context than I might in the other.

One problem with simple dichotomies is that ... well ... the world does not really work that way. "Humanities" types, and I think that philosophy and anthropology fall in that class, have their own "precision." But, I don't think that I need to compare such fundamentally different disciplines to illustrate my point: Compare how Computer Scientists and Mathematicians use --ostensibly-- the same language. I doubt that the average CS teacher thinks of a well-written program as a formal proof, and I doubt that most mathematicians would accept formal proofs (proofs constructed within the accepted CS formalisms, I should say) as valid. Proof, as a case in point, is a matter of the community that interprets it; in a funny way, my proofs are only proofs if they are accepted as such by my audience. And you know, this is true even within a discipline.

Just this semester I had the experience of a mathematician objecting to a proof that I had constructed because it was categorical. The last time that I checked, category theory was part of mathematics, but you see ... is the language of a categorical proof, for let's say that products are unique to up isomorphism in a particular category, any less "precise" than a 1,000 year old proof about prime numbers?

(But, then of course, we could go on to describe the difference between "math" taught in schools and "mathematics" as I might have understood it. You do realize that CS is NOT "math" ... it might be "mathematics," but that is not taught in schools.)

Anyway, I am sure that we all have better things to do now that the summer is upon us than wrangle over language ... next thing you know we'll be debating the social construction of computer science. Don't get me wrong: this is a valid a topic as any other, but the sun is shining and the road awaits ....


Tom R

Very interesting point. I think although the "techies" might talk and use precise language the majority of the time, it is not to be the over-the-top accurate,
but out of habit. That is simply how they know and relate to objects or methods. It is what comes natural to them.

In society today, with technology, even the "humanities" have developed a more techie vocabulary. It is evolving with our technology.


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