Parameter

At home in its proper field, PARAMETER means a mathematical constant that can be assigned different values and, once assigned such a value, will influence the behavior of other variables. This would seem a sufficiently arcane concept to prevent outsiders from borrowing the term idly.

But poor PARAMETER, like the virtuous twin in a story of confused identities, was soon taken for its poorer brother PERIMETER-meaning a border. In no time, the well-bred statistical term found itself adrift and friendless in the mean streets of foreign towns.

Now, for example, a foundation paper can boast of giving its subject “the necessary parameters within which to examine [a topic] and explore its major elements.” Sorry, wrong -METER. As it happens, some of the elements that the paper explored might actually have turned out to be parameters in the true sense. But the intended meaning in the quoted sentence (revealed by the telltale use of “within”) is clearly “border.” Events may be governed by parameters, but they don’t live within them. By reaching needlessly for a loftier term, the writer of the paper simply missed, and landed…well, outside the perimeter.

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