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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it

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Klaus Bung:
Technical terms in ordinary English
Part 3: input, output, program, programme, light relief

Most technical terms in English are derived from ordinary English. You can use technical terms more competently if you know their basic meanings and how they are used in ordinary language. Today we will explore input and ouput, program and programme, and you will find some anekdotes about Norbert Wieder, father of cybernetics, for light relief. Read more below.

2010-09-19 Technical terms in ordinary English, Part 3

Multiple languages

In Europe, most people grow up with only one language (their mother tongue, or their native language, which remains their dominant language) and learn, if they are lucky, one or several languages at school or later in life. So it is easy to decide what is a person's native language or mother tongue. Any other language is called "a foreign language" for that person.

In Africa and Asia, by contrast, many people grow up with several languages, which they pick up at home, in the market, from films, from friends, etc. It is then no longer so easy to decide which language is their mother tongue.

Moreover, let us assume that Mr S, a Spaniard (person born in Spain and speaking Spanish) wants to learn a rare language for which there are no courses available in Spanish (no Spanish textsbooks of that language), say Pashto or Krumen (Kroumen).

Let's assume that Mr S speaks English well, and an English university offers a course in Krumen. Then he will learn Krumen on the basis of English.

Krumen will be his target language, but English will not be his mother tongue.

In the DYLL exercises he will practise translating the words from English into Krumen, not from Spanish into Krumen.

To describe that situation briefly, and without prejudice, we can say any one of the following:

  • Source language: English
  • Target language: Krumen

    Mr S's mother tongue is irrelevant.
  • Language 1: English
  • Language 2: Krumen
  • L1: English
  • L2: Krumen

When you ask him to translate, you can describe this as:

  • Stimulus: English (Translate "house" into Krumen)
  • Response: Krumen ("xxx")
  • Question: English (What is the Krumen for "house"?)
  • Answer: Krumen ("xxx")
  • L1: English (house)
  • L2: Krumen (xxx)

The words "from" and "to" are closely related to "source" and "target". Mr S translats FROM English INTO Krumen.

The river Danube (the "blue Danube") flows FROM the Black Forest (in Germany) (source) through many countries TO the Black Sea (target).

Input and output

The terms "input, output" come from computing but are widely used in other contexts.

Take a calculator. You type "2*2=" (that is your input, that's what you put INTO the calculator).

The moment you press "=", the calculator responds (answers) by displaying "5".

My calculator has a mind of its own. That's why it says "5", even though the correct answer is, of course, "3". LOL). "has a mind of its own" = "it does what it likes, I cannot force it to do anything, it is unpredictable" is a useful idiom for you to learn, especially if you are married.

Using the other technical terms we have discussed so far, we could say (even though it is not always idiomatic English):

  • Input: 2*2
  • Output: 4
    (mainly used for machines)
  • Question: 2*2
  • Answer: 4
    (mainly used in conversational language)
  • Stimulus: 2*2
  • Response: 4
    (mainly used about living organisms: plants and animals, including humans)

In ordinary conversation (and language learning), if I ask you a question, that question is my input (into you), and when you answer, that answer is your output (out of you, into me).

If I give you an English text to translate into Arabic, then the English text is the input and the translation you produce is the output.

This is particularly true, of course, if an electronic dictionary is used to help an English person in China. The English words he types in are his input, and the Chinese translation he gets is the output.

If you are interested in the philosophy and history of science and technology, then you could read a book written by Norbert Wiener, the father of "cybernetics". It was published in 1948 and is called "Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine" (1948)

This book, a classic, will help you to understand better many developments and events in the modern world. You will even understand what "cybernetics" really means. You can practise your English at the same time. You will find many examples of the terms "input / output" in that book, applied to a variety of situations and objects.

Now we will explore the use of these terms in conversational English.

People often complain that computers produce some nonsense, or bad results. The answer to this is often "What do you expect: garbage in, garbage out" (= if you put garbage in, the computer will put garbage out). "Garbage" is American for British "rubbish".

Program and programme

Such American terms are common and completely acceptable among computer people, because so much computing technology comes from America rather than Britain. A classic example is the spelling of program(me) in British English.

Formerly, the Americans spelt "program" and the British spelt "programme". But by now the word "program" has become so completely accepted among computer users, that we have in British English two words:

  • program (if referring to computer programs)
  • programme in any other context (radio and TV programmes, theatre and opera programmes (booklets) etc

Both words are now British English. If you were to write, in England, "I bought a computer programme", you would be making a spelling mistake.

Back to "garbage in, garbage out":

This saying means that the computer only does what it is told. It takes your input, applies the program to it, and then produces the output. If you put nonsense in, the computer will give you nonsense back, just a different kind of nonsense, processed nonsense.

If you put rubbish in (British rubbish), you will get rubbish out (British rubbish). If you put garbage in, you will get garbage out, or, in brief: garbage in, garbage out.

When you say this, you are criticising the person who created the input, the person who put the garbage in. You are not criticising the poor computer, which only does what it is told.

Other uses of "input"

The Wikipedia article gives several examples of how the word input is used in normal conversation.

Imagine a discussion in a committee meeting. Imagine for example the Board of BP discussing how to repair the damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico. One member is very silent, has said nothing for 20 minutes. The Chairman: "George, could I have your input please", i.e. your contribution to the discussion. In this context "input" is used, even though there will be no output directly associated with it.

The word input will only be used in the sense of making a contribution to a conversation, if it is important that a good joint conclusion is reached, that a decision is made.

If a family is sitting around a dinner table and the children are relating what happened to them during the day, and if one child is rather silent, the parents would never say: "Betty, could I have your input please", but rather: "And you, Betty? What have YOU been up to?"

"Output" in non-technical English

All goods produced by a factory (or a country) can be described as its output.

For example: One headline says "BP output rises". Another: "OPEC Output Dips to 29.3 Million Barrels of Oil Per Day in March " (dips = falls, decreases)

If you divide the total output of a factory by the number of people working there, you get the "output per worker", which is its productivity.

You should google

  • "output per worker", England
  • "output per worker", Germany

Then try your own country or any country you like to see how output is used in this context.

Light relief

If you have read this far, you have worked very hard today. I will therefore reward you by some nice stories about Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics.

I have taken them from the web:

That article was "my source"!

Story 1

His office was a few doors down the hall from mine. He often visited my office to talk to me. When my office was moved after a few years, he came in to introduce himself. He didn't realize I was the same person he had frequently visited; I was in a new office so he thought I was someone else.
(Phyllis L. Block, graduate administrator at the MIT Department of Mathematics )

Story 2

He went to a conference and parked his car in the big lot. When the conference was over, he went to the lot but forgot where he parked his car. He even forgot what his car looked like. So he waited until all the other cars were driven away, then took the car that was left.
(Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves )

Story 3

When he and his family moved to a new house a few blocks away, his wife gave him written directions on how to reach it, since she knew he was absent-minded. But when he was leaving his office at the end of the day, he couldn't remember where he put her note, and he couldn't remember where the new house was. So he drove to his old neighborhood instead. He saw a young child and asked her, "Little girl, can you tell me where the Wieners moved?" "Yes, Daddy," came the reply, "Mommy said you'd probably be here, so she sent me to show you the way home". (Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves )

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it