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Describe vs. Specify - terminology question

Ken Austin
Ranch Hand

Joined: Aug 20, 2012
Posts: 39

When talking about programming, can the terms define, describe and specify be used interchangeably? Or is there a subtle difference?

I am making flashcards from the text I am using, and I find that -- when reviewing the flash cards -- I sometimes will say one of these words when the author uses the other. Is this a sophistication issue? Or am I okay in using the terms interchangeably?

For example, the front of the flash card said, "If the subroutine is a function, whose job is to compute some value, then the return-type is used to..."

And I said "describe the type of of value that is being returned by the function."
but the author said "specify the type of value that is being returned by the function."

(By the way, allow me to recommend the Anki flash card program. I've been using it for years, and it is great.)
Campbell Ritchie
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 13, 2005
Posts: 39478
    
  28
I always thought specify meant to say what you want the program to do, so it is something done in advance, to set out requiements.
Ken Austin
Ranch Hand

Joined: Aug 20, 2012
Posts: 39

Campbell Ritchie wrote:I always thought specify meant to say what you want the program to do, so it is something done in advance, to set out requiements.


Right, as in its specifications.

But, if I was in a job interview, and I said describe instead of specify, would they think, "Wow, what a greenhorn...." Or would I be okay?
Campbell Ritchie
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 13, 2005
Posts: 39478
    
  28
Interesting question. It all depends whether the interviewer knows what they mean themselves
William P O'Sullivan
Ranch Hand

Joined: Mar 28, 2012
Posts: 859

To me,

"Describe" is more conversational based. They want to know your thought process.

"Specify" is definitely binary or multiple-choice where they are expecting the correct answer.

WP
fred rosenberger
lowercase baba
Bartender

Joined: Oct 02, 2003
Posts: 11444
    
  16

to me, "specify" is more specific.

If I said "Describe a bubble sort", I would something in a high level, generic way. I.e. "compare each element in an array to the one next to it, and move larger ones towards the end. Keep looping through again and again until you don't have to make any more swaps".

If I said "write some specs for a bubble sort", they may also include performance and memory requirements. They may talk about stable vs. unstable. They may talk about how it is called, what - exactly - it can sort...etc.

basically, "specs" are more specific.


There are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors
 
 
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