Words That Want Too Much (1)

Written by Mark L. Levinson

“You see, TiePlumb is a product with multiple modes,” said Dror the developer.

“You mean it has more than one mode?” I asked.

“That’s what I said,” he frowned.

I might have thrown a box of paper clips at him, but fortunately he was fictitious.

When I was young, and English was English, or at least it was American, “multiple” meant only one thing.  It meant being equivalent, in some way, to more than one, while still being only one.  If the lady down the street gave birth to twins, that was a multiple birth.  If her husband was employed by a car dealer both as a salesman and as an accountant, then he had a multiple job over there.  If he was a salesman for the car lot and an accountant for the supermarket, then he had two jobs — not multiple jobs, since neither job was multiple.

In high-tech jargon, the word “multiple” often tries to assume the additional meaning of “more than one.”  The US government, for example, has a search site headlined “Search across multiple databases.”  Is each of the databases multiple in any way?  Does it, for example, include both a complete set of population data and a complete set of budget data?  No, all the government means is “Search across more than one database.”

When I was young, I never said anything like “Why did I get only one cookie while all the other kids got multiple cookies?”

The dictionaries support the notion that the word “multiple” has a multiple meaning, but to the extent that it does, it’s an ambiguity threat and should be avoided.

“Mode” is another overambitious word.  In a software product a mode, of course, is a temporary regime, within the product, that serves a certain purpose and imposes certain operational rules for that purpose.  For example, when the user asks to retrieve the data for a necktie, TiePlumb goes into retrieval mode and the right and left arrow keys take the user through a series of photos representing the neckties.  But when the user asks to simulate an angle for a displayed bowtie, then the same keys rotate the tie clockwise and counterclockwise.

So far, so good.  But then it turns out that TiePlumb also operates in bow tie mode, string tie mode, and four-in-hand mode.  And in each of those modes, it can also be in retrieval mode or simulation mode.  The user now needs to keep track of which modes can coexist with one another and which modes are alternatives to one another.  A nightmare of multiple modes.

All that a technical writer can do is insist that no matter how many overlapping sets of modes the product has, the term “mode” must apply to only one of them.  The others can have different names — preferably meaningful names such as “necktie type,” but if necessary some rough and generic alternative to “mode” such as “state” or “task.”

Next time, more words that want too much.  So is this a multiple column?  Or would a multiple column be a single column that covered topics suitable for more than one column?  Multiple shmultiple.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.