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Parameter insecurity

Q: I’m confused. I hear the word “parameter” all the time and it seems to have a different meaning each time. What does it really mean?

A: You asked the million-dollar question. When a word means too many things, it means nothing at all.

Weak writers love to use scientific words to give their empty writing an appearance of authority. They love “parameter” so much that they’ve loved it to death.

It’s used these days to mean a boundary, a characteristic, a component, an element, a feature, an ingredient, a part, a perimeter, a quality, a requirement, and so on. It’s used for just about anything but its scientific meaning: a type of arbitrary constant or independent variable in mathematics.

Unless you’re on speaking terms with an independent variable and you can look an arbitrary constant in the eyes without blinking, forget about this word.

For another example of an abused technical term, see the “paradigm” entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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