Re: most annoying word

Subject: Re: most annoying word
From: doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Fri, 3 Mar 2006 20:43:58 -0800

On Thursday 02 March 2006 17:23, Stuart Burnfield wrote as if on cue:
> What's wrong with enable? One meaning is "to cause to operate (software
> that enables the keyboard)" but another is "to make possible, practical, or
> easy".

That is, so the argument goes, the problem. "To cause to operate" suits me
fine, with a few minor qualifications (like a disabled state too) mentioned

To make possible is problematic, discussed below (at end).
To make practical is, well, unthinkable. Maybe later I'll try again.
To make easy is almighty booshwah, discussed now.

There is a continuum represented here: at one end is to make easy, at the
other, to make possible. Maybe we're mixing metaphors or something?

If it means "To make possible,", does that mean that nothing else could have
made it possible?

If "to make easy" is the context where a techwriter expects to see the word
"enable" used, and the dictionary supports it, then what can I say? I'm not
responsible for what you want to write. But since you asked...

In this case, I think there is a technical meaning of enable, which is not as
prone to misuse the way "cause to operate" and "make possible" are.

I'm sure there is a term for words that come in opposite pairs, like the
prepositions on/off, or the transitive verbs give/take. Whatever that term
is, we have a good example of a classic binary pair of opposites with
enable/disable. Even if you couldn't settle on an absolute meaning for
enable, there could always be a concise relatve meaning as the exact opposite
of disable. As a technical term, this is where the strong meaning of enable
lies. If you've used it correctly, it will be juxtaposed with an opportunity
to write a similar instruction for disable. Enable is the right word when
'disable' is the opposite. Try that with "make easy", and if you think it
works, you might as well hit the <delete> key now.

How would this constrain a TW in the use of 'enable'?

How, indeed. Actually, it might not. For example, if you wanted to say...

"Press the Make It Easy button to enable yourself to easily get the
street_address report for all metropolitan area switches."

...then I would have to say fine, as long as there is some opposite, analogous
thing that can be set that disables you from getting that report easily. If
that condition is satisfied, then you've used 'enable' correctly as a
transitive verb in a dictionary sense (the direct object = "yourself", which
is what I meant and what the sentence says) and in my extended technical
sense (if a button turns it on, then assume a button turns it off too).

> I have no problem with saying, "Select option A to enable

so far so good

> users to

Feh. Try this: "To enable user comment editing, select Option A."

See? Ambiguity free. The words say the same thing that you say they say. And
you'll get no arguments from me.

> edit comments." You're not saying that the user is being switched on or
> activated in some way.

This sounds like denial. Are you in denial? You say one thing but write

> You're just saying that option A makes it possible
> for users to edit comments.

Sure, that is the sense required of it. But why not target the real
description, where the direct object of enable is something that is
accessible in software/firmware, not in user wetware.

But maybe I am onto something here. Maybe this is truly nothing but an
extended ego trip for administrators and developers? Aren't these options
and settings done by a guy called Superuser?

Anyway, I'm still not sure whether "make it possible" implies
exclusiveness--it is so prone to misreading-- does 'make possible' mean that
this is the one and only thing that would make it possible, or is it one of
many things that could do so? It isn't hard to imagine a reader misjudging
the meaning on that account.

> I often use the word "enable" to replace the impertinent "allow", as in
> "This feature allows the user to ...".

Well I'll be hornswoggled. Are you a lawyer by training or something? I feel
like I'm talking to Jar Jar Binks. Lets move on to world knowledge.

On second thought, let's don't--it only leads back to the problem that occurs
when meaning depends on missing information.

(b). To make feasible or possible: funds that will enable construction of
new schools [not feasible or possible otherwise].

Ned Bedinger
doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com

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Re: most annoying word: From: Stuart Burnfield

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