Thursday, December 16, 2010

Talking around a definition

(Updated Below, March 9, 2011) Many writers today, unable or unwilling to clearly state a definition, resort to talking around (talking indirectly about) a definition.* If you want to write clearly and persuasively, try to avoid falling into this habit of talking around a definition.

Example of talking around a definition

I wanted a definition of virtual stall, a computer term.

I looked in online dictionaries but found nothing; perhaps the term was too recent. I searched for articles. The first article I found was “Virtual stall: What it is and why you have it.” Its very title promised a definition.

But the text does not provide one. The author (president of Embotics, a Canadian software company) only talks around a definition. This paragraph is the closest he comes to stating a definition:

Virtualization came in fast and grew quickly, without going through the normal impact assessments that most technologies have to weather before deployment. One of the outcomes of this is that the impact of virtualization as a new data centre architecture has only surfaced during the growth phase, leading to problems and eventually applying the brakes to the whole initiative – virtual stall.”

By placing a dash and “virtual stall” at the end of the paragraph, the author hints that the definition of “virtual stall” is buried somewhere in the preceding phrase, sentence or paragraph. In other words, he expects his readers to dig up and articulate the definition that he promised to deliver to them.

I tried another article, “Q&A: Avoiding VM Stall,” in which the marketing vice president of the same company says:

Virtualization is a new architecture in data centers, and one that crosses most of the traditional silos. It entered the data center in a different way than most technologies; driven by the potential economic savings associated with consolidation and the value of the flexibility it brings to IT organizations. It was introduced as a top-down initiative aimed at decreasing the ongoing footprint of the data center and preparing for an internal cloud architecture. It came in fast, grew fast, but hadn’t gone through the normal impact assessments that most external data center technologies do before deployment.

“Its impact surfaces during the growth phase, leading to problems and eventually applies the brakes to the whole initiative – also known as virtual stall.”

Whereas the president uses a dash and “virtual stall” to tell the reader where to start digging up and articulating the definition, the marketing vice president unhelpfully (and ungrammatically) adds the phrase “also known as.”

Disgusted, I tried a third article, “From Virtual Sprawl to Virtual Stall.”

The author of this article spends 185 words meandering through the history behind the term virtual stall and making two false starts at a definition. Then he presents what he apparently thinks is a definition. (I have enclosed my comments in brackets.)

“Virtual Stall can be summed up quite easily [Please dont sum it up; tell us what it is]. The stall happens when [Never mind when it happens; what is it?] a company realizes that it has gone too far too fast with virtualization, which, while it is a good thing to recognize, results in a complete undermining of confidence in completing the rollout.” [So, what is virtual stall?]

That is not a definition. Take another look at the footnote below. A proper definition includes (1) the name of the thing to be defined [“ewe”]; (2) the verb to be, stated or implied [“is”]; (3) a category the reader will recognize [“sheep”]; and (4) one or more modifiers [“female”] that distinguish the thing being defined from other things in the same category [e.g., a ram].

I tried two more articles and then gave up.

The Takeaway: When you write about a topic unfamiliar to your readers, refer your readers to a dictionary definition or define the topic yourself. If you do neither, you will frustrate your intelligent readers. And if you appear to be deliberately teasing them, they will resent it.

See disclaimer.

*Here’s a definition of definition. “Lexical definition specifies the meaning of an expression by stating it in terms of other expressions whose meaning is assumed to be known (e.g., a ewe is a female sheep).” Source: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia.

Update, March 9, 2011, 11:49 AM: In a thoughtful comment, Andi Mann pointed out that he had indeed, in an earlier blog post, supplied a definition of “VM stall.” It is a fine definition; I should not have abandoned my search so soon. Thanks and best wishes to Andi Mann.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this post. I think it is a great point, and as a one-time professional writer, I agree. When you are talking about a new concept or one that is not widely understood, defining that concept is critical.

    That is why when I first wrote about 'virtual stall' (or 'VM stall'), I defined it very specifically as "the tendency for virtualization deployments to stall once the ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been converted (typically around 20-30% of servers)".

    Hopefully this meets your requirements for a good definition. You can see the original post on my blog -

    None of which negates your point. It is important to have a common understanding of terminology, and sometimes that means providing an explicit definition.

    Andi Mann
    CA Technologies.