(Originally published in Volume 5, Number 4, of STQE.)
In his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty introduces the notion of a person's final vocabulary:
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes... A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as 'true', 'good', 'right', and 'beautiful'. The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, 'Christ', 'England', ... 'professional standards', ... 'progressive', 'rigorous', 'creative'. The more parochial terms do most of the work. (p. 73)
Once I read Rorty, I began seeing final vocabulary everywhere. For instance, I read this in part of a note someone posted to the swtest-discuss mailing list:
Maybe in another 10-20 years we will have matured as an engineering profession to the point where the numeric measure has greater applicability.
I bet that person's final vocabulary contains the words "mature" and "engineering" and "profession". To him, they are words of praise, emblematic of a worthy goal. To me, they're not. I don't have any objection to them, but you'll find my writing revolving around other words of praise, such as "change" and "craft" and "student." My different final vocabulary changes how I approach software development. For example, I don't look for a mature process that applies to all my projects; instead, I look for reasons why the last process I used should be changed in a new project.
This magazine's authors use final vocabularies as pervasively and casually as anyone else does. Let me use as an example one of my favorite articles in this issue, Brett Goldman's Front Line. His draft title was "Beyond a Bug Catcher - the Proactive QA Professional". At least two of those words are commonly found in final vocabularies. There's "professional" again. There's also "proactive". That's a word of praise and hope, an unquestionably worthy goal. After all, how often do you hear someone say, "Alas, I was unable to make my project reactive enough, so I was forced to be ..." (hangs head in shame) "... proactive!"
Actually, I'm the sort of person who would say that last sentence, so the title made me skeptical. But it's not my job as editor to indulge my final vocabulary. It's my job to ensure that the article helps readers who share the author's final vocabulary do their jobs better, and to make the article accessible and useful to readers with different final vocabularies. When you read Brett's article, I believe you'll see that it does both things.
Still, articles written from a foreign vocabulary can demand more of you, the reader. If you find an article grating on you, if you think the author is clearly wrong-headed, I suggest you read it differently than you probably read most articles. Explicitly separate out what the author implies you should believe from the actions she describes. Focus on her specific results and the actions that led to them. Pause for a moment to admire the actions - savor the pleasure of seeing something done well in its own terms. Then think about the results. They're not the results you'd prefer, but what sort of similar results would you like? How, in your style of work, could you adapt the author's actions to get your results?
By focusing on actions over beliefs, you'll get value. Even better, you'll stand a chance of having an "Aha!" moment where suddenly a whole new idea reveals itself. I bet you'll get more and better ideas reading a diversity of articles than by reading only articles written in your own vocabulary. We editors try hard to pick such articles for you.
Copyeditor Rebecca Traeger helped a lot with this essay.