Summary: inc/decrement, v.t.

Subject: Summary: inc/decrement, v.t.
From: Richard Mateosian <srm -at- C2 -dot- ORG>
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 1994 00:35:00 -0700

This all started when an "STC major" told TECHWR-L of her shock at finding

> "increments" and "decrements" were used as VERBS!

[To which I replied:]

>May I have a show of hands on this one? Did you know that these verbs aren't
>verbs? Do only programmers increment registers?

Many confessed to having no inkling that they weren't verbs. Several said
they knew but used them anyway--not always reluctantly.

A couple of replies cited technical dictionaries that accept the verb forms.

Here is a digest of the responses. Most were by email, but a couple were on

IMPORTANT: If you see anything here that you'd like to respond to, please
don't include this entire posting in your reply. Excerpt the line or two
you're responding to. Assume that anyone interested in your response
remembers enough of the original to understand the context of your reply.
Thanks, ...RM

** I'm mildly surprised that of all the dictionaries people consult, none
seems to list the verbs. But I consider them acceptable.

Guilty as charged, I have been forced to write (ugh) these words as verbs
and console myself that "English is a living language and if they aren't
verbs now, they will be tomorrow if I and others use them as such". It's
sometimes painful but true. I wonder if my form of English will graduate me
to the fuddy duddy club.

You got me. I didn't know that they weren't verbs. Now that I know, I'll
keep using them as verbs, and justify it to my English-degree-holding self
because "they should be verbs" or "the language needs words with those
meanings." What's the alternative? "++" and "--" in the vernacular?
(Understand, though, that I've been a calculator and computer geek longer
than I've held an English degree. I learned about "decrement" in the
register sense from programming a TI calculator, whose language was
assembler-like and did looping by setting a register and doing "DSZ" which
meant "decrement and skip on zero." That was a while back, I must say.

And now a note from the archives: the "IBM Vocabulary for Data Processing,
Telecommunications, and Office Systems" (7th edition dated 1981) lists
meaning 4 for "increment" as: "To alter the value of a counter or register
by a specified value." By the 9th edition dated 1991, that meaning had been
removed from the definition. Somebody else must have figured out that it
wasn't a verb for the rest of us.
I wonder what IBM replaced that meaning with?

[To which I replied:]

On my first "real" job in 1966 I used the DEC PDP-8, which had instructions
ISZ and CIA. CIA means "complement and increment accumulator," i.e., change
its sign as a twos complement integer. ...RM

Yes, I've heard increment/decrement used as verbs by programmers, but I knew
they were incorrect. I fixed it. :-)

I also thought they were verbs.

Engineers also increment and decrement registers, counters, etc.
Increment and decrement may not be in the dictionary, but they are valid
engineering terms. I have, in the past, gone 'round and 'round with editors
and other English majors about those two words (especially decrement), and
am sure I will again, sooner or later.

I remember reading somewhere (I don't remember where) that if all
engineering, technical, and scientific words were included in the
dictionary, it would triple in size. In other words, there are an awful lot
of tehcnical terms that are not in the dictionary.

I first heard these verbs this summer from a programmer and said, "No way!"
After checking my dictionaries, I promptly stomped them out of our group.

increment and decrement are common in computer jargon - they are
used in the sense of "increasing the value of a pointer or variable by 1"
or "decreasing the value of a pointer or variable by 1"

Of course they're verbs. How else are you going to say something like "the
counter increments the page number automatically"?

Programmers definitely increment registers and variables. I've been using
these "verbs" at least since I started programming, and have a negative
aesthetic reaction to the obvious alternative ("add one to i"). My
dictionary doesn't support me on this, though.


12. <The STC major>
I take back my "e-e-e-eww" to "increment" and "decrement" used as verbs!
It's just that the first time I read "Decrements ...", the first image I got
in my head was of some bodily function.

I understand every profession has individualized terms it uses. Guess I
missed these two in my CS classes.

I am speaking as a long time programmer who has had to draw many flowcharts
in addition to documenting my programs. In both the flowcharts and
documentation, I have used these two words as verbs (usually when referring
to counters).

It seems to me to be programmingese--what was once a noun becomes a verb
because the programmer doesn't have any other word to describe it. Many
people condemn this practice, but not me--it is necessary, inevitable, and

This is what "The Computer Glossary", 5th edition, by Alan Freedman says:
"Decrement: To subtract a number from another number. Decrementing a counter
means to subtract 1 or some other number from its current value."

I've used 'em and seen 'em used for five years. What are our choices? "The
program increases the counter by one"? More clear the first time maybe, but
cumbersome, especially if it's a programmer doc -- they'll just think,
"Hunh? Oh, INCREMENTS..."

I would avoid the verbs _increment_ and _decrement_ when writing on subjects
other than software. Programmers use these verbs regularly, according to one
that I know well. ;) Know thy audience.

This term, and many others found lying around by tech writers, is derived
from mathematics -- the language of science. This old(er) math major and
former teacher has taken rather nicely to the tech writing career (for 14
years now), partly as a consequence of being able to handle that subject and
thus communicate with engineers.

Whether we call it logic, physics, or scientific language, I think the
concepts and terminology of mathematics permeate our working environment.
Terms like "increment" are invented and used because they fill a need; the
more we understand of the needs, the less we will worry needlessly about
what is 'correct' this week.

We've been using "increment" and "decrement" for a long time, too. It has
been in relation to scientific applications, however.

I became a programmer in 1980 and have always used increment and decrement
as verbs in systems and programming documentation. I am like you in that I
didn't know they weren't in the dictionary. However, I don't ever think I
have used either of these words in end-user documentation.

I use them as verbs. My audience is quite familiar with these words as
verbs. My audience is made up of people with at least passing familiarity
with one programming language.

An intriguing dilemma. I can't recall ever seeing "increments" and
"decrements" used as other than NOUNS. However, I'm willing to acknowledge
that language evolves. . .

Both the Random House Personal Computer Dictionary (1991) and Webster's
NewWorld Dictionary of Computer Terms (1983) list increment and decrement
as verbs.

They are in :
The Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Information Technology
The Computer Glossary, 5th edition, by Freedman
The Van Nostrand Reinhold Dictionary of Information Technology, 3rd Edition

When the decrement hits the atmospheric propulsion device...

Richard Mateosian Technical Writer in Berkeley CA srm -at- c2 -dot- org

Previous by Author: Re: help-quark manual format
Next by Author: Re: Word
Previous by Thread: Re: My rough movie/online analogy
Next by Thread: Re: Summary: inc/decrement, v.t.

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads