Less is more, especially when you confuse ordinal and cardinal numbers

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/03/08 14:01 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2008/03/08/8114286.aspx

Please read the disclaimer; content of Michael Kaplan's blog not approved by Microsoft!

It was yesterday I think that Simoen asked:

The ngen.exe online help suggests that priority 3 is the highest priority, but .wxs files make 1 the highest, and 3 the lowest.  Are WIX and ngen.exe just inconsistent in their use of priority numbers, or are they consistent and 1 is always the highest?

Here’s the help from ngen.exe:

ngen executeQueuedItems [1|2|3]
     Executes queued compilation jobs.
     If priority is not specified all queued compilation jobs are done.
     If priority is specified compilation jobs with greater or equal.
     priority than the specified are done.

I’m confused by the “greater or equal”, seeing as 3 is greater than 2, it implies that 3 is of greater priority than 2.


It turns out there are no worries -- both technologies treat 1 as the most important, so there is no inconsistency....

This just leaves the perception issue, and what in my opinion might actually be a grammatical error, in that place Simeon points out, using the phrase greater or equal priority when referring to ordinal numbers rather than cardinal numbers.

It reminded me of that old Evan Jenkins example from the Columbia Journalism Review:

A Little League team's players, the article said, "picked up their third World Series victory in as many days." There's an extremely common error there. As many as what? As many as third? No, obviously. "Third" is an ordinal number, denoting the position of something in a sequence. "As many as" needs to refer to a quantity, not a position, and that requires a cardinal number -- here, "three." If the sentence had said "picked up three World Series victories in as many days," that would have been fine. (But for all that, "as many as" smacks a little of elegant variation. What's wrong with "their third World Series victory in three days"?) (CJR, Nov./Dec. 1998)

Now the problem is a bit more insidious when the numbers are clearly ordinal numbers yet are being written as 1 2 3 rather than 1st 2nd 3rd or first second third. But that doesn't mean it isn't an error to use the phrase great or equal priority here, given the very natural confusion that is created her with ordinal numbers, where "less" is technically "more"....

Even if not a grammatical error (I am hardly at risk for being named the Patron Saint of Grammar, even excluding the fact that I'm not Catholic and have no miracles to my name I can talk about), it is at the very last a usability problem to use such language in a toolset that must often be run by people who do not have English as their first language and may not easily grok the meaning!

Some day, I may get into the whole nominal v. cardinal vs. ordinal number thing. For today I'll just suggest that the ngen tool could use a bit of usability engineering on that text!


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