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Parameters and paradigms

parameter
para:
Greek (“beside”)
metron
(“measure”)

As a mathematical term, parameter has been in use since the 17th century (geometry). It continues to be used in fields such as statistics, computer programming,  and even linguistics. (Encylopedia Brittanica: “Parameters . . . are options that allow for variation in linguistic structure”)

In the 20th century, people started using parameter to mean “a measurable factor which helps to define a particular system.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The New Parameters

We must operate within the parameters that have been laid out in the manual.

In its new incarnation, parameters is usually used in the plural (i.e., a “set” of conditions or limitations), rather than in reference to a ceiling, upper limit, or single boundary. (Thus, criterion would be a better choice in a sentence such as: “Customer satisfaction is a useful parameter for evaluating the project’s success.”)

Parameters is often used in reference to matters that are subject to variables and limitations imposed within a range (e.g., financial and policy guidelines).

“The squabbling added to the swirl of public confusion over the parameters of the FBI inquiry and who is setting them.” (Washington Post, September 30, 2018)

This particular FBI “inquiry” needs to be completed by a certain date, but the course of the investigation may change depending upon the facts that are uncovered and where investigators are led in the process. The scope of the investigation is also subject to change in the allotted time period.

A budget is a planning tool. Income and expenses can be estimated, but actual income may be different from what was anticipated, and expenses can be greater or less than expected. In most cases, resources are not unlimited, and adjustments may need to be made as time passes to “balance the budget.”

If fixed boundaries are indicated, parameters is probably not the best choice. A country has borders; a city has limits. (Ever see a sign at the edge of town that says, “City Parameters”?)

While on probation, Maximillian must stay within the confines of the town.

Likewise, a “glass ceiling” is not a parameter; it’s a barrier and a limitation.

“It is not possible within the parameters of one chapter to provide a comprehensive review of this subject.”

Sure, a chapter has a beginning and an end, but a chapter is not a parameter; neither is a book. (Breaking a whole into parts does not a “parameter” make.) Also, the addition of “within the parameters” is superfluous. “A comprehensive review of this subject cannot be provided in one chapter” is enough. Don’t waste words, and don’t use the “almost right” words.

“The commission must act within the parameters of the statute.”

What does that mean? Is the commission “constrained by” requirements set forth in the statute (so it cannot approve a measure it would like to approve)? Is the commission reminding its members that actions must be taken “in accordance with” applicable laws?

Parameter has become a trendy substitute for anything that has a boundary. (cf. perimeter) Be aware, however, that this usage is not universally accepted, and if you are writing for a publication designed for professionals in a particular field (or speaking to them at a conference), you will want to ensure that your use of parameter is accurate.

My advice: If you don’t have a clear understanding of how parameter applies in your situation, don’t use it because you think it sounds important!

Shifting Paradigms

paradigm
from Late Latin paradigma “pattern, example,”; from Greek paradeigma “pattern, model; precedent, example” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The same advice goes for paradigm, another word that is very popular and, arguably, overused (especially in reference to a paradigm shift).

In use since the 15th century, paradigm* originally meant a pattern or archetype. With the rise of the scientific method came a new meaning: “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.” In recent decades, paradigm has come to mean “a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

In the context of scientific inquiry, paradigm does not refer to a single theory; it is the model or framework that gives rise to theories and hypotheses (which are then tested and confirmed or refuted).

Paradigm is a great word—when it is the right word. Often, however, other words would suit the purpose as well or better.

Since the shooting, my whole paradigm has changed.

Since the shooting, my worldview has changed.
[worldview: “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint”]

Since the shooting, my philosophy has changed.
[philosophy: “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group”]

Is a legal “doctrine” to now be considered a “paradigm”—or is including “paradigm” in a title good marketing?

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With such a confusing title (“paradigm on interplay”??), a reader might hope that the assertion of a “new paradigm” would be explained in the article.

The word paradigm is not mentioned once.

(I suspect it’s not in the court’s opinion, either.)

 

* Paradigm is also a term the field of linguistics.

 

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