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Numerical language

Is metric an ugly word?

In the past 6 months, I've noticed the word "metric" used in unfamiliar ways. Once, as an adjective, it referred to measurement systems and rhythm. Now it appears as a noun, vaguely signifying something quantifiable.

From a bit of web checking, I've discovered that "metric" was established use in the IT industry by 1994 as a measure of software quality.I can't fathom changing practice within IT (it has as much right to silly jargon as any other field), but can we rebel against the migration to mainstream language?

I find the new use of metric unnecessary and unhelpful. Many terms already refer to countable information: data, digit, statistics & statistical set, amount, measurement, quantity & quantitative, etc., All these carry distinct meanings with specific rhetorical uses.

From a very quick search, I found this odious example: "define metrics to measure success...Every metric should be specific, measurable, actionable...." Measurable metrics? Would "indicator" or "standard" suffice here? A second example, "many different metrics on one page" seems to refer to numbers or even the lowly digit. And what about the rampant "data metrics"? Is this a case of advance planning, close proximity, and joint cooperation?

With a heavy heart, I found 10 such uses of the word here in Ask ET, some by contributors I greatly appreciate (though never used by our host). In every case, a familiar term could replace the neologism, usually with more precision.

Talking and writing about numbers is hard. Most people are already convinced that they won't understand. So why introduce unaccustomed and vague language? To put it another way, jargon is like chart junk. It clutters rather than clarifies.


-- Melissa Spore (email)

Old established Numerical language

The words "metric" and "metrics" have been used as nouns for a very long time in the otherwise unrelated fields of Mathematics and Prosody. 1 2 3. The IT usage is derived from the Mathematical usage via their common cousin, Computer Science. Lines of Code is a metric for code in the same mathematical sense as the taxi-cab metric is for walking distances in Manhattan. A Metric is a standard of measurement. While mathematical terms can be misused annoyingly in portions of IT not sufficiently enlightened by CS and its mathematical heritage, it's a perfectly good word.

Contrary to the common misunderstanding, Metric in that usage does not connote Decimal. When we use "metric" as an adjected to refer to "The Metric System" we are properly referring to the single universal international and scientific standard decimal metric system as opposed to our ancestral duodecimal, hexadecimal, etc imperial metric system of pounds, shillings and ounces. They are both metric systems, but only The standard is called The Metric System.

-- William Ricker (email)

The prefixes 'me-' , 'met-' go way back into indo-european and were ancient coinage by the time Latin had 'metior', 'to measure'. The meaning given to 'metre' as a unit of length was (in French) 'The Measure' as the proposed universal standard representing one ten-millionth of the distance between the Equator and the North Pole. Within the 'Metric System' (capitalised as William suggests) all other measures of area, volume, and mass can be derived. So 'The Measure' defined all other measures and therefore represented a significant advance on other systems where mass was defined separately. The SI System that has replaced the Metric System is based upon the same principles but has a different definition of length (approximate explanation!).

'Metrics' in a business sense can have a separate meaning. The metrics of a project are those numbers that are used to define success (and get the bill paid for achieving that success). So 'Budget Cost' or 'ROI' could be metrics where 'Project Cost' or 'IRR' are not. But this use is so specialised as to be virtually worthless in any but the most intimate of internal discussions and I have to agree with the previous contributors.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

Alternative words that move closer to the purpose of making measurements: evidence, assessment, standard, evaluation.

"Metric" seems limited to quantitative measurements; presumably all sorts of evidence would be useful in most of the cases mentioned above. And we don't want to start saying "metric and non-metric data".

I avoid the word "metric" because it has occasional overtones of bureaucratic/corporate/dot-bomb jargon and faux-analytical posturing--and because it arbitrarily narrows the scope of relevant evidence to the quantitative.

A parody of business-school buzzwords would probably include the words "metric" and "synergy" and "integrated solution" and . . .

"Metric measurements" reminds me of a colleague in a meeting who spoke of "future planning." I was left stupified by the phrase, but someone else had the wits to counter with "Well if you have to do it, that's the best way."

-- Edward Tufte

Readers of this thread might also be interested in our thread on rhetorical ploys in evidence presentations at

-- Edward Tufte

From Newsweek:

"Gingrich argues that the administration has been putting far too much emphasis on a military solution and slighting the political element. "The real key here is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow," he says. "And that is a very important metric that they just don't get.""

-- Edward Tufte

I arrived here looking for a place to drop this link about the Piraha, who have no use for metrics, or any numerical words.

Having read the rest of the thread, I would also like to submit that I was vaguely in the camp set against using the word metric to describe these variable-like-things-of-which-we-speak until the Wikipedia's article tossed me on the fence. Little m metric is often a poor choice of words for a popular audience, just as free clinics are likely to be more accepted than indigent clinics, but the usage is undeniably relevant in business, computer science, and even relativity.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Numerical language musings

The increasing use of the word “metrics” bothers me too—unless in the context of advanced mathematics or prosody as earlier posters have written. The word “metric” confers a cynical faux-legitimacy upon otherwise vacuous language. What’s wrong with the word “measurement” instead of “metric”?

When I hear “something over another thing”, I always think spatially, i.e. division and not subtraction. When I took courses in business school, the word “over&rdquo meant difference, and not division or ratio—this used to drive me crazy. Think of the example “excess revenue over expense.” Sounds like a quotient, doesn’t it? Why not say “something minus another thing” for subtraction?

I have used mathematical symbols as handy shortcuts for note-taking from college until today. A short list with HTML codes in parentheses follows:

± plus minus(± or & plusmn;)
therefore (∴ or ∴)
there exists (∃ or ∃)
for all (∀ or ∀)

Here is a table of HTML 4.01 codes for many mathematical symbols—I have not seen many of these codes elsewhere.

-- Jon Gross (email)

Threads relevant to business:
Narrative sparklines should replace one-at-time instantaneous performance readings.

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