Aug 26 2012

Watch those syllables

Here’s a thing. A very small thing, but a thing.

I just saw it for about the 87th time and realized what’s so annoying about it.

It’s != or |= for ≠

Here’s what so annoying about it.

What the hell is the point? Just say “doesn’t equal.” If you don’t have the actual ≠ handy then just type the words, for godsake.

I know another one like that. DFW for Dallas Ft Worth. If you’re writing or typing, by all means say DFW, but if you’re talking – well do what you want, but DFW is more syllables than Dallas Ft Worth.

I know this because Martin Amis pointed out another one in The Information – someone talking referred to the MW for microwave. Count them.

Here’s another: the BBC always says WWF, never World Wildlife Fund. Both longer and more cryptic. Stupid.

Always be careful of the W.

Also – I don’t want to point fingers, but four twenty ten is a silly way to say ninety.

This has been Sunday Advice, brought to you by the Milk Marketing Board.


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  1. 1

    The != thing is used in many computer programming languages as the “not equal” operator. I suspect you’re just seeing geeks who are letting it creep over into their other communications channels.

  2. 2
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    Yup. As a programmer “!=” is my default. Typing ≠ (which really means typing ≠) is not so natural.

  3. 3

    Silly french and danish that base their numbers on twenty.

  4. 4

    Also, in defense of !=, I often use it in Youtube comments where there is a character limit. When I’m at liberty to be as verbose as I want, I don’t use it.

    IMO, DFW rolls off the tongue a little easier than Dallas Fort Worth but WWF is clumsy to say.

  5. 5

    As for DFW: you are probably saying “Dee eff double you” but I have heard it pronounced, “Deef dub ya” which is only three syllables.
    I have also heard “TY” instead of “Thank you”
    I can’t decide if it is laziness or cute.

  6. 6

    DFW is the airport code for the main transport hub of the region. It also implies the whole metroplex and not just the two anchor cities.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh well all right then. As you were.

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    four twenty ten is a silly way to say ninety.

    Because the military beat it into me, I say nine-zero instead of ninety. Over a static-filled radio or bad telephone circuit, ninety can be confused with nineteen but nine-zero and one-nine are more distinctive.

  9. 9

    But “Beware the W” is generally very good advice!

  10. 10

    WWW – 9 syllables for world wide web. Gnar.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    Nine zero and one nine, no problem. But don’t ever call something called 19 “one niner” without a good reason. I once worked with someone who did that. My BFF there and I rolled our eyes and giggled every time.

    I’m infantilizing you all.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Here the university is called You Dub. Ew.

  13. 13

    @ Suido,

    WWW – 9 syllables for world wide web.

    that one’s always bugged me, too. We need to go back to pronouncing W the Old English way, Wynn. (But keep the modern letter, as ᚹ looks too much like P).

  14. 14
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    What the hell is the point?

    Saving keystrokes.

  15. 15
    Josh Slocum

    Those are my pet peeves too. The reflexive use of acronyms and initialisms drives me nuts. Especially since so many people assume *everyone* knows what they’re talking about.


    Cops calling a car “red in color.” As compared to “red in length?” That’s just stupid. It doesn’t even address an ambiguity, because a red car could be red only in the sense of color.

    Journalists writing “police executed a search warrant at 123 Mumbledy Place”. Just write “police searched.”

  16. 16
    Gregory in Seattle

    Not to be pendantic or anything, but is also a valid “not equals” symbol.

  17. 17
    Charles Sullivan

    I once saw someone use that for ‘doesn’t equal.’

  18. 18
    Gregory in Seattle

    Errr… the “less than, greater than” combination ≶> that HTML doesn’t like.

  19. 19
    Steve A.E.

    On the matter of syllables, I would really love it if we could all adopt the convention of pronouncing 2012 as “twenty twelve” instead of “two thousand twelve.”

  20. 20

    @Josh Slocum

    Journalists writing “police executed a search warrant at 123 Mumbledy Place”. Just write “police searched.”

    There is a real distinction there. There are circumstances where police do not need a warrant to conduct a search (and those circumstances are usually bad news for the defendant.)

  21. 21

    Double-U could use a shorter name and Wynn sounds fun. On a GNU/Linux command line, w is a short command that I think means “users and uptime”. UU digraph fun! “BMW” is easier on the German toungue. On the other hand, German counts funny.

  22. 22

    I think DFW sounds better. Consider the Hank Wangford song:

    I looked for you in DFW,
    But you must’ve been in Love.

  23. 23
    Ace of Sevens

    I see. You just write this to hate on Lincoln.

  24. 24
    Anonymous Atheist

    Ophelia – Aside from the ‘programmer habit’ reason for it showing up, the advantage of using != is that it uses standard basic ASCII characters that will show up consistently everywhere (which is the reason it is used in programming code, incidentally). Extra-special characters like the pretty ≠ et al are sometimes handled inconsistently by different software and websites. The characters with two-digit or three-digit-up-to-255 numeric codes are the universally-supported basic ASCII and the widely-supported extended ASCII. The characters with three-digit-above-255 and four-digit numeric codes are from the still-inconsistently-supported Unicode (UTF-8) character set. It’s great that this site and comment forms support them, but many don’t, and people often don’t know ahead of time.

    Where does “four twenty ten” getting used for ‘ninety’ come from? Yeah, 4×20+10=90, but who the heck would say or write it out like that for any reason, much less with the operators omitted?

    Josh Slocum – On the ‘police searched’ thing, they probably have to write it out as ‘police executed a search warrant’ for legal CYA clarity, because just saying ‘police searched’ could mean ‘police searched without a warrant’. The ‘red in color’ thing does seem unnecessary, though.

    Gregory in Seattle – “Not to be pendantic or anything, but is also a valid “not equals” symbol.” – the symbol you’re referring to seems to be absent..?

  25. 25

    World Wildlife Fund is now called World Wide Fund for Nature, but still retains the acronym WWF. I think that’s why the BBC always calls it the latter – many people would not know what they were talking about if they used its current name. Kind of like the SAT (the standardized test used in college admissions in the US), which technically doesn’t stand for any words.

  26. 26
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ophelia Benson @ # 11: But don’t ever call something called 19 “one niner” without a good reason.

    FTR, that one comes from aircraft radio codes. It’s intended to help keep Germans from getting confused about hearing “No!” when someone’s just speaking a number.

    And we all know what can happen if Germans get excessively confused.

  27. 27
    Anonymous Atheist

    Once it gets out of moderation for including links, I have a comment pending. While I was working on that comment, Greg answered the last part already (in the process showing himself why people generally don’t use that angle-brackets not-equal symbol online ;) ).

  28. 28
    Anonymous Atheist

    trazan – “Double-U could use a shorter name and Wynn sounds fun.”

    Sometimes I hear just “dub” for pronouncing “W”, but it’s not widespread (I think it got most of what popularity it does have, from VW as “vee-dub”). It does make “www” easier to say as “dub dub dub”. But “wynn” does sound fun… then “www” would be full of win! ;)

  29. 29

    There is a real distinction there. There are circumstances where police do not need a warrant to conduct a search (and those circumstances are usually bad news for the defendant.)

    And there are also cases where the police needed a warrant, didn’t have one, and searched anyway, which is usually very good news indeed for the defendant.

  30. 30
    'Tis Himself

    And we all know what can happen if Germans get excessively confused.

    At one time the Germans were warlike and mean
    But that couldn’t happen again.
    We taught them a lesson in nineteen-eighteen
    And they’ve scarcely bothered us since then.

    –Tom Lehrer, “MLF Lullaby”

  31. 31
    Joey Maloney

    I work in a non-English-speaking environment, where WWW is pronounced “wuh-wuh-wuh”.

  32. 32
    se habla espol

    in the process showing himself why people generally don’t use that angle-brackets not-equal symbol online

    I find ≠ easier to type than <>, myself. YMMV (which is easier to type, and just as meaningless as “your mileage may vary”).
    Having spent 50 years in the ‘puter field, I still consider abusing the ‘emphatically’ character, ‘!’, to denote negation as an abomination.

  33. 33
    Josh Slocum

    There is a real distinction there. There are circumstances where police do not need a warrant to conduct a search (and those circumstances are usually bad news for the defendant.)

    Sigh. I should have given more backstory. I used to be a cops and crime reporter. I know all the justifications and conditionals.

    In reality: Journalists fall into lazy habits of repeating cop-speak. Cops really, really, really, really want reporters to say “executed a search warrant” instead of “searched.” They want this because they believe it conveys to the reader that they, the cops, did a legal thing and weren’t straying outside their remit.

    I understand the motivation but it’s irrelevant for the following reasons:

    1. The newspaper is not a court of law. It is not out of bounds to omit technicalities and it does not jeopardize a case, because any case is not being tried in the paper. The reporter’s duty is to the readers (and, when I’m dreaming, to clear and concise prose), not to cops.

    2. The reader does not, in fact, pick up the subtle nuances the cops think are conveyed by saying “executed a search warrant.” If you think newspaper readers are that bright I cannot help you.

    3. If the cops searched a house without a warrant, you can be sure that will be reported in very plain terms. Failing to insert ponderous bureaucratese to pre-empt that suspicion does not a warrantless search make.

  34. 34

    Josh Slocum says:

    Those are my pet peeves too. The reflexive use of acronyms and initialisms drives me nuts. Especially since so many people assume *everyone* knows what they’re talking about.


    What does “Moar” mean?

  35. 35


    Also, twitter. ≠ is 12 characters shorter than “doesn’t equal” and is 13 characters shorter than “isn’t equal to.” I used to go with =/= (!= always seemed too obscure to me) until I knew that “≠” existed, but now I use ≠, which saves me two characters.

    Twitter is hard for me, as I tend to be rather verbose. Trying to jam everything into 140 characters without losing important punctuation and or making (what is to me) painful abbreviations (example: ppl instead of people) is almost always difficult and sometimes impossible. I probably use TwitLonger more than I ought to, but breaking up a long comment into multiple short tweets always makes me nervous that I’m spamming my followers. Things like ≠ are godsends.

  36. 36

    The “niner” thing is because “nine” actually can sound quite a bit like some pronunciations of “five” over a noisy radio. Saying five as “fife” softens it a bit, and saying nine as “niner” makes it two syllables, between those two changes it is almost impossible to confuse them.

    For similar reasons several of the numbers have prescribed pronunciations that might seem unusual, see section 4-2-7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual or Wikipedia’s article on the ICAO phonetic alphabet.

    I’m not exactly sure what the rationale is behind saying “four” as “FOW-er”, perhaps to separate it from the word “for”?

  37. 37
    Dave W

    @30: Back in the mid-90s, my English-speaking, 60-something father criticized me for saying “double-U double-U double-U dot” because “all the kids” were then allegedly saying “wuh-wuh-wuh,” and he didn’t like that I wasn’t down with the contemporary slang.

    Of course, now-a-days, I criticize my wife for typing “www.” into a browser navbar because she’s just wasting time.

  38. 38


    I feel your pain. It takes me forever to compose a Youtube comment because what I want to say rarely fits easily into the character limit. I tend to verbosity as well and, being older than the internet, text speak is more work for me than typing properly. Thankfully I only use Twitter to keep up with what others say so I don’t have to deal with 140 characters.

  39. 39
    Phill Marston

    Here in (French speaking) Switzerland we say ‘nonante’ for ‘ninety’, instead of ‘quatre-vingts dix’. That tends to get sniggers over the border.

    Josh Slocum brought up the use of the word ‘execute’ and when that word word is used in the sense of putting a convicted criminal to death it really gets my goat. ‘Execute’ really means ‘to carry out’, so an ‘Executive’ carries out the wishes of the Board and the ‘Executive Officer’ on an American warship ensures that the Captain’s orders are carried out. When a criminal is put to death it is the seath warrant that is executed. The victim is slaughtered.

  40. 40

    I once saw someone use that for ‘doesn’t equal.’

    *raises hand* Guilty.

    Wait, not I’m not! “Guilty”, that it. Makes a hell of a lot more sense than “!=” for those of us who aren’t career/hobbyist programmers (or who don’t think of themselves as such).

    Marginally faster than spelling out the words, but I usually use it when I’m going for some aesthetic effect and want to avoid the misrepresentation that can sometimes happen when using non-entirely-standard characters like “≠” online.

    Of course, I’ve been chided before by programmers wannabe ‘hackers’ insisting that it’s not ‘correct’. To them I say: I’m talking to humans not instructing a computer so PFFT.

    Also: Come visit Belgium or better yet, Switzerland. They’ve dealt rather nicely with that pesky need for doing extra math when just naming a number :)

  41. 41

    They want this because they believe it conveys to the reader that they, the cops, did a legal thing and weren’t straying outside their remit.

    I understand the motivation but it’s irrelevant for the following reasons:

    I have to disagree here. Science reporting suffers the same problem of journalists trying to shorten, simplify, or ‘dumb down’ their writing (showing my bias there…). Seems to be either because they think their readers won’t, or because they themselves don’t, understand what is being said.

    In the end, it leaves readers with a subtly wrong impression of reality. Read “they searched” rather than “they executed a search warrant” often enough and you do tend to forget about the whole ‘got a search warrant first’ part.

    Plenty of readers already skim and repeat what they *think* they read, but IMO that makes it more important to be very clear in the original writing, not less.

  42. 42

    What if I say ~(A = B), is that more, or less, annoying?

  43. 43

    Phill, the (francophone) Swiss use “octante” too, no? The walloons already use ‘septante’ and ‘nonante’, for cryin’ out loud, I don’t know what their hangup is about “80″ *grumble*

  44. 44

    I’d just like to say “Get off my lawn you darned pesky kids!” That is all.

  45. 45

    DFW said as “Dee Eff Dub You” (or “dubya”) is not as phonemically expensive as Dallas Fort Worth. Far more mouth movement required for the latter. Despite my dancing between the proscriptive and descriptive linguist camps (I think proscriptivism is necessary when teaching students about language, power, and perception of intelligence), I vote for the spoken initials on that one.

    I’m also fond of my graduate alma mater being known as You Dub, but not so much of the husky mascot being known as the “Dawgs.”

  46. 46

    As a programmer, it’s != because I don’t know the math symbol in HTML. (I never said I was computer savvy, just a code monkey).

    In Peninsula (Spain) Spanish, www, is triple uve doble which is triple w (lit. triple double u). And my better half who hails from Chile says that w is pronounced be double there, so it’d be triple ve doble (lit. triple double v). So, let’s just say triple w and be done with it?

  47. 47
    Phill Marston

    ibbica, the francophone Swiss say ‘huitante’ for eighty, just so they don’t get mixed up with those Walloons!

  48. 48

    @Phill: Well I was told the Swiss used ‘octante’. Wait, most of my information’s coming from Walloons, so… off to the French Wiki!


    Huh. Well, that settles it. Also: damned Gauls…

  49. 49

    != and are programming things. never seen |=, likely a language I don’t know. != is used by a lot of mainstream programming languages so it happens a lot. But this is a good reminder that not everyone is familiar with any programming language at all.

  50. 50

    Unfortunate short forms are everywhere.

    The University of Toronto is commonly referred to as “UofT” (“ewe of tee”), and the Royal Ontario Museum as the “ROM” (one syllable).

    We all too often shorten a coffee with two creme and two sugar as a “double-double”, to the mystification of anyone from outside the country. Allied soldiers who were in Kandahar know this now, thanks to Tim Horton’s opening up an outlet there for the Canadian contingent.

    Everyone knows the Molson muscle is your gut – Molson being a beer brewing company, providing the connection to a beer belly.

  51. 51
    Phill Marston

    @ibicca, The Genèvois do use ‘quatre-vingts’, but they consider themselves more French than the French anyway. Newsreaders and announcers on Radio Télévision Suisse also say ‘quatre-vingts’, presumably so as not to appear too ‘provincial’. But there’s not that great a difference between Swiss French and metropolitan French (apart from the accents!) but if you want to talk about Swiss German……………….

  52. 52
    Scr... Archivist

    Always be careful of the W.

    If only more people had heeded that advice twelve years ago.

  53. 53
    Don Quijote

    Because we don’t have Spanish words with W, Spanish people (that I know) tend to substitute it for V.
    For example, the car BMW is pronounced as “be e-me oo-be”. Probably because saying “oo-be do-ble” is too much of a mouthfull.

  54. 54
    Stuart Taylor

    The !=, etc, is surely just to save characters in these modern times?

  55. 55

    Yes, as a programmer, I have to remind myself not to use “!=” when talking to general audiences. Ophelia’s exactly right on the reasons why it’s a bad thing. Of course, for someone with my background, it’s as natural as seeing “=” for “equals”, or “&” for “and” or what have you. If Ophelia said, “And reason #3 is,” I wouldn’t get all mad and say “You should type out ‘number three’!” — but the problem is that the meaning of “!=” is only that natural and obvious for a subset of the population. Whoops.

  56. 56
    Ant (@antallan)

    @4/piegasm & @34/Erista (aka Eris)

    I second that re Twitter.

    For example, one might write “I’ve made the reciprocal mistake in assuming that humanism ⇒ atheism ∀ humanism!” rather than “I’ve made the reciprocal mistake in assuming that humanism implies atheism for all values of humanism!” ;-)

    @ 24/Heliconia

    The WWF has reverted to the World Wildlife Fund because nobody “got” World Wide Fund for Nature. See the © notice at the foot of its homepage: http://worldwildlife.org/


  57. 57
    Deepak Shetty

    It’s != or |= for ≠
    Provoke us geeks more and we’ll use <>

  58. 58
    Deepak Shetty

    that was we’ll use <>

  59. 59

    I really don’t care much which symbology or acronyms anyone uses. But I firmly believe that the first time you use a acronym or symbol you tell me what you are talking about and place it in brackets.

    ie: first case: “!= (not equal)”. Thereafter you can use the shorter “!=”.

    Same with acronyms.

    “AFC (Automatic Frequency Control)”. After you can use “AFC”.

    The rule should be that if there is any doubt at all that a reader might not know exactly what is meant by any acronym or symbol you explicitly spell it out for them.

    This sort of standard practice makes sure everyone knows what you are talking about and prevent confusion. If a message is important enough for you to want to post it it is certainly important enough to do it in such a way that it can be understood by the widest possible audience. It shows respect for both the reader and your message. A few extra keystrokes isn’t much of a burden.

  60. 60
    Ant (@antallan)


    I see “<>” both times — but not in the notification email.


    Or you could use “AFC” — although that doesn’t work on an iPad! :-/ (Hint: It’s the third allowed tag.)


  61. 61
    Christoph Zurnieden

    It’s != or |= for ≠

    Well, actually the |= does not mean “not equal”, just the opposite, kind of, at least in formal logic.
    Given the countable infinite set G={“1 is green”,”2 is green”,…}, the sentence A=”The integers bigger than zero are {1,2,3,…}” offers the interpretation that B=”All integers bigger than zero are green” or in short
    So it might be not wise to use |= for “not equal” when discussing with logicians, they might get irritated.
    On the other side: when does a dilettante has the chance to irritate a logician?

  62. 62

    Actually, I have seen |= used in some formal logic texts to mean not equal to. Also ~= and various other fairly random characters. I’m probably showing my age though: some of those books were clearly prepared on a typewriter

    I don’t apologise for using != but most of the people I type to are geeks, the remainder probably don’t care what I’m banging on about anyway.

    But since we’re venting, I’m bemused and infuriated by the fact that whenever people speak on a PA on a plane or train, they adopt nonsensical patterns of speech.

    For example “If you DO want to purchase bewilderingly expensive drinks…” (emphasis theirs)

    Anyone not on a PA would just say “If you want some booze…”

    They seem to think they have to speak in a more ‘formal’ way and the key to doing that is to add spurious words, bizarre inflections and use the longest words they can think of, regardless of whether they mean what they think they mean.

  63. 63
    Ant (@antallan)


    Agree with you about train announcements (certainly on UK East Coast) and about the tendency for people in such situations to say too much and grandiloquently. The latter also applies to written notices. Pet hate: “Please refrain from Xing” rather than “Please don’t X”. (“Guys. Refrain from doing that.”)


  64. 64

    @63 Ant Allan:

    East coast are the main culprits, yes.

    I am also infuriated that when they announce what they have for sale on the buffet cart they NEVER KNOW. Even though they make the same announcement for the same items DOZENS OF TIMES, EVERY SINGLE DAY. And they still have to check what they themselves sell FOR A LIVING.

    Seriously, Ophelia, you need to start a thread to discuss UK East Coast Main Line trains.

  65. 65
    Tâlib Alttaawiil (طالب التاويل)

    “four twenty ten is a silly way to say ninety”

    would it interest you to know that the french vigesimal (base-20) counting system is thought to be a vestige of a linguistic substrate related to basque, predating the roman conquest of gaul? basque & many other languages (including burusyaski, my area of research) are vigesimal. i fail to see how the decimal system is superior. variety is just so much cooler than uniformity, in language as in life.

    i dig your work, but i’m not a fan of linguistic imperialism (or, as i call it, lingperialism).

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