Re: Tridant false

Subject: Re: Tridant false
From: Ben Kovitz <bkovitz -at- IGS -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 19 Jul 1996 16:36:00 PDT

Robert Plamondon wrote:

> You don't need to prove anything by first principles. You can do this
> by example: quadrant, sextant, octant, tridant. The first three are
> in the dictionary; the last is constructed with the same tools.

> I'd guess that the OED would even have a listing for tridant, but I
> don't have a copy, and don't feel like driving to the library to check.
> It might be worth YOUR time to do so, though. Few people have the
> cojones to argue with the OED. Except us.

And Matt Hicks replied:

> "Quadr(a)" + "ant",
> "sext" + "ant",
> "oct" + "ant",
> "tri" + "ant", not "trid".

> How about this as a counter example: quadrangle and triangle? "Tridant" is
> a nonsense word; the proper construction should be "triant".

Apparently you both missed some of what I posted about this. I checked
out the Latin, and the correct coinage would be "trient"--with an 'e'
but not a 'd'. It might not seem like it, but this is what fits the
pattern, not "triant". I'm not sure, but I think similar words for
one-seventh and one-ninth would be "septent" and "novent", also with the
'e' rather than the 'a'; at least, that's what my intuition says.

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Latin, but I think the rule for
forming these fraction is as follows. First make a verb out of the
cardinal number, and then form the fraction word by taking the
present participle. So these Latin 1/n fraction words are the
equivalent of, in English, saying "a threeing", "a fouring", etc. Now,
there are three basic types of Latin verbs (plus some others),
distinguished by their infinitives, which end -are, -ere, and -ire.
(These three verb classes still exist in modern Romance languages.) The
corresponding endings for the present participles are -ans, -ens, -ens.
(Where I'm not clear is how you go from the number to the verb:
"quattuor" is Latin for four, and "quartus" for fourth; but the
imaginary verb is "quadrare". The rule that the fraction is a present
participle is pure speculation on my part, though nothing else in this
message is.)

When we import a Latin word into English, though, we first run it
through the process by which it would have gotten into French: the
nominative was lost, replaced by the accusative, and then all but the
last stressed syllable of the accusative was trimmed off. The Latin
accusative for "triens" would be "trientem" (I think), and then trimming
off all but the last stressed syllable yields "trient". Finally, now
that the word is in English, we move the stress to the preceding
syllable, to make the word conform to our complicated rules for stress
pattern. Also, the 'i' in "triens" was short, but it's not legal to
have two short vowels in a row in English, so we make the stressed one
long. (Post-1066 French can go its own way and offers no further
precedents for English.)

This might seem like a preposterously complicated process, but it *is*
the process by which the vast majority of Latin nouns got into English.
So in order to be consistent with the rest of English, it's what you
have to do when coining a new English noun based on a Latin root. The
whole point of going to Latin rather than just making up a completely
arbitrary word is to follow precedent, of course. ("Precedent" is
another example of the process described above.) Educated word-coiners
have been following it for centuries.

The existence of this procedure, by the way, is what makes it possible
for a native English speaker who's never studied Latin to have a pretty
fair intuition for Latin.

Something I forgot to mention before: I checked the OED, and it has no
listing for "tridant". (I'll check "trient" when I get home tonight.)

Tim Altom brought up the most important issue here:

> Who's the goddamn writer here, anyway?!?

> Why is management, which presumably has better things to do, interfering
> a spelling matter? Do they tell developers what code to write?

Indeed it seems to me that the coining of new words is a job best not
left to amateurs. Look what's happened now that marketers have been
coining words. Many software jargon terms have been coined by programmers
with very little understanding even of their native language. "Open
systems" is just one of the most extreme examples of their failures.

When it comes to matters that pertain to documentation, such as the
coining of appropriate new words for new concepts, the technical writer
should be the one to do it. Note that this is a matter of *decision*
more than discovery. Someone has to be the one with final say about
what the company is going to call something in its manuals. For
product names, of course that should be someone in marketing. For
terminology, that should be a technical writer.

(And the technical writer should be qualified to make this decision
well, which is why I posted the above description of how to make new
Latin-derived words consistent with the rest of English. I find it
appalling that in 12 years of public education, the basic principles
that explain why our spelling is the way it is never get taught.
This could easily be taught to junior-high-school students in one hour,
provided they had such background as knowing that there was a language
called Latin and it got worked into English when the French invaded

Unfortunately, I didn't handle this situation well. I didn't talk
directly with the client. I talked with someone else in the company,
before I'd researched the matter, and thus spoke with a certain amount
of uncertainty. This person then contacted the client, I wasn't there
to explain that it's a matter of informed choice rather than conformity
to an existing English word, and ignorance prevailed.

I think when handling these things, the way to do it is just to act as
if it's obvious to everyone that this is your decision and that you
know more about it than anyone else. It's amazing what such subtleties
in the way you talk can do for getting people to go along with you.

Lisa Higgins wrote:

> one of the most valuable lessons I learned very early in my career
> is that sometimes, you just have to let it go.

That is just what I plan to do, though I might give it one more shot,
maybe by forwarding some of the comments that have been posted to
TECHWR-L. Maybe I'll use that one about my boss's "bum".

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