parameter



The term parameter has a number of specific meanings in fields such as astronomy, electricity, crystallography, and statistics. It is originally a term in mathematics, a field whose definitions can be so technical that they only make sense if you already know what they mean. Let us try nonetheless. In an equation, the parameter is one of the terms in an equation that can be varied to produce other equations of the same form. A parameter in the equation of a curve, for instance, can be varied to represent a family of curves. Applied more broadly to science, a parameter is one of a set of measurable factors, such as temperature and pressure, that define a system and determine its behavior. Thus the parameters of an experiment can be varied to produce different results.    1
  Perhaps because of its ring of technical authority, people have applied parameter more generally in recent years to refer to any factor that determines a range of variations and especially to a factor that restricts what results from a process or policy. In this use it often comes close to meaning ?a limit or boundary.? Some of these new uses have a clear connection to the technical senses of the word. For example, the provisions of a zoning ordinance that limit the height or density of new construction can be reasonably likened to mathematical parameters that establish the limits of other variables. Therefore you can say The zoning commission announced new planning parameters for the historic Lamping district of the city. But people often go one step further and use parameter as a highfalutin synonym for characteristic and end up sounding as if they are simply trying to add an aura of scientific precision to what would otherwise be an unremarkable point. The Usage Panel is not impressed by this ?characteristic? use of parameter. Eighty percent reject the example The Judeo-Christian ethic is one of the important parameters of Western culture.    2
  Some of the difficulties with the nontechnical use of parameter appear to arise from its resemblance to the word perimeter, with which it shares the sense ?limit,? though the two words differ in their precise meaning. This confusion probably explains the use of parameter in a sentence such as U.S. forces report that the parameters of the mine area in the Gulf are fairly well established, where the word perimeter would have expressed the intended sense more exactly. The Usage Panel does not cotton to this use of parameter either. Sixty-one percent find the ?mine area? example unacceptable.    3



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