Re: Preserve/Conserve

Subject: Re: Preserve/Conserve
From: Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 2 Nov 1998 09:53:39 -0700

Marianne Bowen wrote:

>Which one of these is correct and what is the difference in meaning:
>The original configuration is preserved.
>The original configuration is conserved.

What is the intended meaning? Without that, it's difficult to
say which is "correct".

As is often the case, you might look at entirely different ways
of expressing the meaning rather than just changing one word.
Here are some alternatives to consider, depending on what you're
trying to say:

The original configuration never changes.

Once you've set the configuration, you can never change it.

When you change the configuration, the system saves a copy of
it so you can easily restore it. To restore the original
configuration, see page XX.

Did a programmer write "conserved"? Elisabeth Zakes quoted some
definitions of both of these words, but if a programmer wrote
them, this just goes to show what poor sources dictionaries often
are for understanding what people mean or for writing to be
understood. Many programmers are former physics geeks, and like
to use the terminology of physics. In physics, "conserved" is
the idiom for describing a quantity that remains unchanged by an
action. So, for example, kinetic energy is not conserved during
any but an elastic collision, but total energy (kinetic +
potential) is conserved.

Note the "is conserved" formulation. That's what makes me suspect
that physics envy might be the source of your troublesome
sentence. If so, then completely ignore the programmer's choice
of wording in this case--both alternatives. Ain't no quantity
being conserved, ain't that sort o' thing, ain't physics.

Finally, general good advice: ask a member of the target audience
(a user, if writing a user's manual) to tell you what the
sentence means. If the user's interpretation is not what the
sentence is supposed to mean, then the sentence is "incorrect".
Even if a user understands, you can probably come up with much
clearer wording by listening to either the user or the SME
explain it.

Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>
Author, _Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content & Style_

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