Parameters and Perimeters

Here’s what my computer dictionary says about PARAMETER:

parameter |pəˈramitər|noun technical

• A numerical or other measurable factor forming one of a set that defines a system or sets the conditions of its operation: the transmission will not let you downshift unless your speed is within the lower gear’s parameters. [I have no idea what this means.   JB]

• Mathematics—a quantity whose value is selected for the particular circumstances and in relation to which other variable quantities may be expressed. [I have no idea what this means, either.  JB]

• Statistics—a numerical characteristic of a population, as distinct from a statistic of a sample. [Ditto. JB]

It then says that the word is often used to mean  “limit” or “boundary.”  Now even though I don’t understand the mathematical or statistical meanings (I got freaked out by numbers when I was in first grade), it annoys me to see people describe the “parameters of a problem.” I’m guessing this happens because of the similarity to the word “perimeter.”  Why not just say the “scope, size or limitations” of the problem? I know why not: because people think “parameter” makes them sound important.  It’s jargon.

English: parameters

English: parameters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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3 Comments

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

3 responses to “Parameters and Perimeters

  1. JB,

    As much as I love you and share your rant against ignoramuses who can’t punctuate, spell, or find the right word, I have to say this post is as innumerate as your usual targets are illiterate.

    “Parameter” is not jargon; it has nothing to do with “perimeter”, and it has a definite and exact meaning — although you are quite right that many people who don’t understand words like “Parameter” or “exponential” frequently use and abuse them only because they sound important.

    Consider the definition you quoted under Mathematics.

    Think of a recipe, which gives lots of quantities for various ingredients. You understand, of course, that one cannot actually make any recipe without deciding first how much finished product you want, i.e. how many people you plan to serve.

    The parameter is the number of people to be served. Its value is “selected for the particular circumstances” (how many you’re actually cooking for). The “other variables and quantities” are all the other measures in the recipe. They are “expressed in terms of the parameter” because you halve them, or double them, or keep them the same, depending on the parameter: how many people are to be served.

    Sometimes, though, a parameter value only works when the it lies in a certain range. Under the first bullet: the parameter is the car’s speed; the other variables that depend on it are the choice of gear and how fast the engine is going. But second gear only works when the parameter — your actual speed — is in a certain range the engine can handle. Those are second gear’s parameters.

    This usage is still relatively precise, and in many situations cannot be substituted by the simple “limit”, because in less trivial problems there are often many parameters, and the limits of each often depend on the values of the others.

    If someone rejected all discussion about proper punctuation as pedantic blatherskite, simultaneously excusing themselves by, “I got freaked out by words in the first grade,” I somehow don’t think you would let them off (:-)

    Cheers!
    /Jim G

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    • Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to set me straight. I definitely agree with the use of “parameter” for the examples you gave. And you are correct, that the word has nothing to do with “perimeter,” unless people are thinking of the edges of a problem limiting its size. I am so used to hearing “parameter” used in the corporate and legal spheres, incorrectly, to make the speakers and writers seem impressive and knowledgeable . At least that seems to be their intent.

      I’m still wondering if a word like “scope” would not suffice for your recipe example, though. In the everyday world, would that not be sufficiently accurate? I am most open to education. I know you were explaining the scientific function of the word, but in casual speech, which is what most of us traffic in, do you think “scope” would be acceptable?

      Cheers back at you—

      Judi

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      • I do think “parameter” is a little technical. I don’t think anybody in a kitchen would say “parameter” or “scope” either for that matter, about a recipe. They would just say “number of servings”, which works fine.

        “Scope”…. not in the second bullet meaning, which I perceive as the original fundamental meaning (the first bullet being derived from that, I speculate).
        “Range” would do pretty well.

        Two other similar words that actually mean something precise, but are abused by innumerate journalists to sound cool, are “exponential” and “parabolic”. If one doesn’t understand the growth rates they define, one shouldn’t use the word!

        Later/jim

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