When Bad Language Happens To Good Systems

January 25, 2018  |  Laureen Hudson

In my last blog, I wrote about how words are created and then become mainstream over time, and how that time is longer for normal words, and shorter for words used to describe things in tech. But it’s not always a straightforward nor does it always land in the correct place. To illustrate, I give you, “on premise” versus “on premises”; a battle that has happened to every company that’s ventured into the Cloud (which is a whole other language discussion we’ll have some other time).

In 2013, Brian Madden fired the first shot of the linguistic resistance to the term “on premise”:

And then, after much discussion, in 2014, he conceded defeat. “I'm saddened that the industry seems to have adopted the grammatically-incorrect term "on premise" in place of the actual term, "on premises" when discussing where servers will live.” he wrote. He goes on to bemoan the fact that “VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft all preferring the term "on premise" over "on premises" in their official press releases and technical documents.” He continues on to say that “Or maybe this is the evolution of language. It's shortened, perverted, and flexed to evolve with the times. Fine, let's call it linguistic evolution.”

Brian, dude. We can do better. This isn’t evolution; this is people being incapable of finding an online dictionary.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, our dictionary of choice here at AlienVault, is pretty clear on the difference between the two terms.

Premise: a : a proposition antecedently supposed or proved as a basis of argument or inference; specifically : either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn

b : something assumed or taken for granted : presupposition


Premises: a : a tract of land with the buildings thereon

b : a building or part of a building usually with its appurtenances (such as grounds)


On premises:  inside a building or on the area of land that it is on 

Full meals are available at restaurant on premises. No smoking on premises.

Tom at The Networking Nerd, a word geek after my own heart, brings us the etymology:

The etymology of these two words is actually linked, as you might expect. Premise is the first to appear in the late 14th century. It traces from the Old French premise which is derived from the Medieval Latin premissa, which are both defined as “a previous proposition from which another follows”.

The appearance of premises comes from the use of premise in legal documents in the 15th century. In those documents, a premise was a “matter previously stated”. More often than not, that referred to some kind of property like a house or a building. Over time, that came to be known as a premises.

Where the breakdown starts happening is recently in technology. We live in a world where brevity is important. The more information we can convey in a brief period the better we can be understood by our peers… In an effort to save precious syllables during a presentation, I’m sure some CTO or Senior Engineer compressed premises into premise. And as we often do in technology, this presentation style and wording was copied ad infinitum by imitators and competitors alike.

Now, we stand on the verge of premise being redefined. This has a precedent in recent linguistics. The word literally was recently been changed from the standard definition of “in a literal sense” or describing something as it actually happened into an informal usage of “emphasizing strong feeling while not being literally true”. This change has grammar nerds and linguistics people at odds. Some argue that language evolves over time to include new meanings. Others claim that changing a word to be defined as the exact opposite meaning is a perversion and is wrong.

I’m definitely in the “that is wrong” camp. You don’t define a word to mean its opposite, because that’s how you introduce ambiguity, and as you guys know, I’m not a fan of ambiguity, especially in technical communication.

Dave at GeekFluent is on my side on this as well. Read, and be enlightened:

However, there are more circumstances where no degree of sloppiness in communication is acceptable whatsoever. Examples include:

  • When you’re proposing that a customer purchase an expensive cloud solution.

  • When you’re trying to convince a customer how careful your cloud solution will be with their mission-critical data and applications.
  • When there might be any sort of legal contract involved.
  • When you want to convince the listener(s) that you really do know what you’re talking about and that they’re in good hands.

In my experience, no one is ever sloppy or failing to pay attention to details in only one area of their life — it starts to sneak into other areas as well. If one consistently uses terminology incorrectly, the listener will — consciously or unconsciously — start to believe that the speaker maybe isn’t as knowledgeable in this area as they seem to think they are.

If you’re still not convinced that allowing communication sloppiness is unacceptable, let me ask you the following two questions:

  • Is it acceptable to spell a customer’s name incorrectly on a multi-million dollar proposal?
  • Is it acceptable to provide a customer with a quote that has an extra zero accidentally added to the end of the total price? (Or accidentally leave a digit out of the total price?)

No, of course it isn’t. By developing a practice, and even a discipline of being accurate, it makes you more likely to avoid other mistakes. This is the converse to sloppiness sneaking from one area into others: In my experience, no one is ever only sure to bring a degree of considered accuracy to only one area of their life — it starts to sneak into other areas as well.

Word choice is a credibility issue. That’s why choices like this have got to be made with care and diligence. That’s why editors exist; to make sure that no one gets the wrong idea by making sure that sloppiness in language choice is eliminated.

Fascinatingly, Dave, Tom, and I have all come to the same conclusion:

We all stop using the words “premise” and/or “premises” altogether, and instead use the word “site”.

Boom. How easy would that be? It’s clear. It’s unambiguous. It’s simple English, and easy to understand by practically anyone. Most importantly, moving the standard that way would stop the proliferation of blogs by word nerds being peeved about “premises.” Thing is, the big shops still use the term, and no one wants to be the first disrupter to step out and make the change. Which is really weird, because we want to disrupt their business models, and we’re all fine with that. Maybe this isn’t about language adoption and codification patterns at all, but more about peer pressure on the corporate level.

I guess I know what I’ll be doing this quarter… flying in the face of the precedent that the big shops laid down, sloppily. One of the advantages of being agile (not Agile, although that too) is that we have the capacity to be disruptive, and also to stand against the inertia of doing it the way everyone else did it because it’s always been done that way.

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

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