Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Correcting Vocabulary

Semantics: the words we use, the way we describe things, the jargon we employ. All these are hugely important and entirely trivial at the same time.

Good semantics is precision.
Bad semantics is off-putting.

Often the only difference between those is your audience.

For example, Michael Bolton talks fairly frequently about testing versus checking. He goes on at great length in several forums about how testing is a sapient learning process and checking is simply comparing X to Y (I'm paraphrasing; go read the article). That's all great, for the right audience. Making that distinction provides a learning opportunity for testers, which is wonderful.

And sometimes correcting that vocabulary is a really negative thing to do.

Here's a hint: your average Product Manager who wants to publish a test plan really doesn't care if it says checking or testing. Your average Implementation Manager who wants you to review a product evaluation plan really doesn't care that the client has provided a plan that says "test X" when it should say "check X". He just wants to know if your product is going to pass.

Remember that guy in school who was always correcting everyone? "You don't mean literally got pushed under the bus. You mean metaphorically." "Actually, the appendix does have a purpose; it's vestigial, not useless." He was usually right, but nobody liked being around him. He was so stuck in the details and in proving how smart he was that he completely missed the bigger picture - an expression of frustration, or comfort offered to a sick and worried friend. Don't be that guy.

I recently was reviewing an evaluation plan provided by a potential client, and it was written by someone who evaluates products for a living. He isn't trained as a tester; his background is development and research. His evaluation plan says things like, "test that the memory utilization is 1GB". That's probably a check. So did I send back a bunch of comments that describe what a check is and why these particular things were tests and not checks? Nope. It wouldn't have helped. He was going to do these things during the evaluation, regardless of what they were called (so why bother making him call them something else?). He's not going to apply that knowledge going forward; after all, this evaluation technique has worked for him for years. All I would have accomplished would be to send the message, "I'm scared of something here so I'm trying to throw you off your game by drowning you with vocabulary that isn't going to affect what you do and therefore really isn't important." Later, when we have a relationship and when there's an opportunity to talk about testing versus checking in an environment where he's open to learning, then I'll bring it up. But right now, it just looks like a snow job intended to make him feel dumb.

So when you go to correct someone's vocabulary - to say, for example, "You called that a test but it's really a check and here's why" - make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Make sure it actually matters. If you feel the need to correct someone's vocabulary, ask yourself three questions first:
  • Does this person care whether he got this term wrong?
  • Will correcting him cause any positive behavioral change?
  • Am I doing this to make him think I'm smart or because there's an actual purpose?
Don't set out to prove you're smart. Set out to help. Accept that the English language is imprecise, and seek increased precision in vocabulary only where precision will help.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. As I mentioned on twitter, I actually consider "checking" _part of_ testing - not a separate activity (which leads, I suppose, the the problem of what to call the *other* part).

    Anyway - fromthe vocab side, you're spot on. It's important to communicate in terms that people understand - then use the conversation to dive into deeper meanings.

  2. You make an excellent point and I agree, but there are situations where this is not trivial: http://chrismcmahonsblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/watch-your-language.html

  3. nice english words
    keep up the good work