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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2009

    According to my sources, "heuristic" refers to a process of discovery; essentially by trial and error. On the n-Lab it seems to be getting used as an adjective to mean something like "not very technical". Am I misreading something here?

    To make the point a little more general, the n-Lab is fairly international and so in its expression it should strive to be as simple as possible. We have enough jargon within the mathematics so I think that we should aim for simple language elsewhere. Maybe I notice this more than others since, as one of the few native English speakers who contributes, when I encounter a word or phrase that doesn't make sense (linguistically, not mathematically) then I can be fairly confident that it is the word or phrase that is incorrect and not my grasp of the English language. Or if it is me that has it wrong then it is highly likely that others will also be confused and so the offending term should be mollified to make it clearer.

    So, now's your chance to object before I purge the n-Lab of the word "heuristic" and other grammatical nonsense!

    • CommentRowNumber2.
    • CommentAuthorTim_Porter
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2009
    • (edited Apr 14th 2009)
    Another native (U.K.) English speaker here. Often 'heuristic' seems to be used when 'intuitive' or some similar sense is intended. (By the way was 'modified' rather than 'mollified' intended! Generally you are right, although a 'heuristic proof' may be alright... but a detailed look at that might get into the meaning of 'proof' more in the sense of 'test'. There is merit in using 'explanation' as long as the text does actually attempt to 'explain'.

    • CommentRowNumber3.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2009
    My fault, of course. I should correct that. So what's the best word for "not very technical"? The term "intuitive" doesn't quite capture it either, does it?
    • CommentRowNumber4.
    • CommentAuthorTobyBartels
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2009
    For a proof, how about ‘non-rigorous’? (What page or pages is this about, anyway?)

    Also, of the 3 biggest contributors to the Lab (Urs, Mike, and I), at least one and probably two are native English speakers. In my experience, intelligent non-native speakers know more about what's officially acceptable to grammarians, if still less about the actual grammar of casual speech. I wonder, however, if you (Andrew) are particularly sensitive (among native speakers) to the needs of non-native speakers by working in Norway?

    • CommentRowNumber5.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2009
    I suppose Andrew is thinking of the entry that I titled

    heuristic introduction to sheaves, cohomology and higher stacks,+cohomology+and+higher+stacks

    I used the term "heuristic" there in the sense of "contains the main ideas but in non-technical form".

    I seem to be under the impression that for instance at conference talks the word is used this way not unfrequently. But that could just man that the same mistake is repated again and again by non-native speakers.

    As John once said somewwhere on the blog in reply to somebody from Russia who apologized for his imperfect command of English: "Don't worry too much. The official language of science is not actually English, but bad English."

    • CommentRowNumber6.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2009

    Okay, my "native English speaker" line didn't go down well. I apologise for that. My intention was to keep the tone light whereas it appears to have had the opposite effect.

    I probably am more sensitive on grammar and the like than the "average" English speaker. It certainly predates my stint in Norway and probably even my stretch in the US. Perhaps I'm more aware of it here, particularly as learning Norwegian makes me focus on grammar and expression a little more than usual. The word "heuristic", however, scored highly because I recently finished reading Polya's book so it was embedded in my conciousness. I suspect that many people don't really know what it means, native or not, and tend to go along with Humpty-Dumpty:

    When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean. Nothing more, and nothing less.

    Okay, to practicalities. Incidentally, one reason why I started a discussion rather than just changing it was that it entails changing the title (and, yes, the "heuristic introduction" was the main offender, but not the only one). On the "heuristic introduction" page:

    Title: How about just "An introduction to ..."? The word "introduction" already conveys the sense of not being complete so nothing more is needed here.

    "heuristic knowledge of topological spaces": either "basic" or "working" would work here.

    "heuristic but useful idea": "basic" or "simple" would work, or just "useful idea" as the word "idea" conveys the "not technical" aspect that is wanted.

    "the following is a heuristic way to understand this": again "basic" or "simple" here, I prefer "simple".

    PS Tim: I used "mollify" intentionally. I wanted to convey the sense of changing a difficult term to an easier one. I wonder whether any non-native speakers would have picked up on the subtlety between "mollify" and "modify"?

    • CommentRowNumber7.
    • CommentAuthorTobyBartels
    • CommentTimeApr 17th 2009
    Some of these might be met by ‘informal’ or ‘intuitive’. Also, Urs's page seems more along the lines of motivating the subject than anything else. So perhaps:
    • CommentRowNumber8.
    • CommentAuthorMike Shulman
    • CommentTimeApr 19th 2009
    (native English speaker here -- err, native American speaker)

    I agree that "heuristic" to mean "intuitive" or "informal" is not quite right. Probably "informal" usually conveys the intended meaning best, but your other suggestions look good too. However I think that "heuristic" has other almost-relevant meanings than "trial and error." At least when used as a noun, "a heuristic" can be a particular method or procedure which is used to solve multiple problems.
    • CommentRowNumber9.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeMay 6th 2009
    So, are you waiting for me to change it?

    Please everybody feel free to correct my entries on the Lab, especially as far as just language is concerned. I would have been okay with Andrew just changing the respective occurences of "heuristic" followed by a brief announcement at "Latest Changes". In the worst case of disagreement we can still roll back the edit history.

    I am currently busy with more parallel tasks than I should be and grateful for every item that others are not waiting for me to get back to.
    • CommentRowNumber10.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeMay 6th 2009
    Ah, maybe one more comment:

    I don't quite want just "An introduction to..." because that might also mean an introduction to the technical aspects, while what is intended in "An introduction to the main ideas underlying..."
    • CommentRowNumber11.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeMay 7th 2009

    I wasn't particularly waiting for someone else to edit the entries, though I guess that redirecting the "heuristic introduction" page might need "superuser" privileges. Just been a bit busy with other things, that's all.