28 No. 2
|Up for Discussion
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Can Ambiguous Terminology Cause a Barrier to Trade?
Paul De Bièvre asked us this question in a recent article
published in the CI series, “Emerging Issues
in Developing Countries” (CI
Sep–Oct 2005, pp. 18–20). The following piece
includes both a letter from William Horwitz received in response
to De Bièvre’s initial publication, and De Bièvre’s
Letter from William Horwitz
Now that I am retired and have no professional responsibilities,
perhaps I can comment on the article “Emerging Issues
in Developing Countries” by my friend Paul De Bièvre
that appeared in the Sep–Oct 2005 issue of Chemistry
International, pp. 18–20. I have admired Paul over
the years for his command of non-native English and his zeal
in trying to instill the importance of metrology to ordinary
As a result of my more than 65 years of practice in regulatory
analytical chemistry with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
with AOAC International, and as the U.S. Delegate to the Codex
Alimentarius Committee on Methods of Analysis and Sampling,
I am aware of the importance of standards, uncertainty, and
metrology. I have always referred to the writings of W.J.
Youden, John Taylor, and Grant Wernimont, because these authors
were readable and understandable. I also have been exposed
to the metrological documents from ISO, VIM, and the corresponding
documents from our own NIST, but I must confess that after
all this time, this literature is still largely incomprehensible
to me. Metrology is fundamental to all measurements, but understanding
metrological documents is probably inversely proportional
to their importance.
Unfortunately, Paul’s article is another example in
obfuscation. I am a type 2 diabetic and my glucose value can
vary from day to day by 5 to 10 percent, so the difference
in international standards from country to country of perhaps
less than 1 percent is an absurd justification for “identical
understanding of the same concepts.” It is merely common
sense that units should be the same the world around; there
should be no problem in obtaining the concurrence of chemists,
as in the case of IUPAC nomenclature for organic compounds,
when it is presented in understandable terms. The problem
occurs because most explanations of the definitions and distinctions
in metrology are incomprehensible.
Take the paragraph on “Quantity,” which provides
a superb example of the problem. After reading the paragraph
innumerable times, I still did not see the distinction between
quantity and amount. So I turned to my desk dictionary to
find that linguistically a quantity is “1. An amount
or portion; either, a measurable or numerical amount; or,
loosely, any amount capable of an increase or decrease in
kind...05. Math. Whatever may be operated upon according to
fixed mutually consistent laws;—distinguished from a
Turning to magnitude: “1. Greatness; as: a Physical
greatness...2. a. Size; special quality. b. Quantity, capability
of being greater or less. 3. Astron...4. Math. A number assigned
to a quantity, by which the quantity may be compared with
other quantities of the same class.”
It appears that the distinction that is desired is that “quantity”
is the item and “amount” is its magnitude. But
then the second sentence destroys this insight: “Thus,
in chemical measurement, ‘quantity’ is ‘concentration,’
‘content,’ ‘amount-of-substance fraction,’
or ‘mass fraction.’ But ‘quantity’
is also used by chemists colloquially to mean ‘amount.’”
This then pulls the rug out from under my understanding! Further:
“Thus we often talk ambiguously about a ‘quantity
of sample.’ If we want to express ‘how much of
a substance there is,’ then the term ‘amount’
should be used to avoid confusion.” To me, a 1.0000
gram test portion (not “sample” by IUPAC and ISO
nomenclature!) removed from a test sample is an unambiguous
quantity or amount, and I do not yet see the distinction.
There, in a nutshell, is the problem that metrologists have:
They are unable to clarify the major distinctions they see
in concepts that are indistinguishable to the multitude of
Dr. Horwitz retired from AOAC International (Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA). In the 90’s, he was involved in the IUPAC Analytical Chemistry Division, and more particularly with the former Commission on General Aspects of Analytical Chemistry.
Reply by Paul De Bièvre
has given me great pleasure that my good American colleague
in measurement Bill Horwitz has taken so much notice of my
recent article in CI. As it is the explicit intention
of this series in CI to be “up for discussion,”
I will comply.
am retired, too, and I do not believe that our professional
responsibilities are thereby ended. If one has accumulated
professional experience in measurement on the intercontinental
scene spanning four decades, and can combine that experience
with the ability to look at the measurement scene from a distance
in space and time, that constitutes a great asset. In addition,
listening to questions from audiences on the six continents
is an enormous learning experience. I think both of us should
continue to utilize those assets—as Bill does by writing
However, right away he delivers clear proof of the ambiguity
in the English language of a basic concept (and associated
term) in measurement: “quantity.” He disputes
my statement on the use of “quantity” and supports
his argument by the results of his diligent search in various
dictionaries, the very purpose of which is to explain terms
used in daily language. But the meaning of concepts and terms
in measurement are not to be found in a desk dictionary for
ordinary language but in a vocabulary, defined by the 2000
ISO International Standard 1087 1, 3.7.2 as a “terminological
dictionary which contains designations and definitions from
one or more specific subject fields.” For the field
of measurement, that is the International Vocabulary of Basic
and General Terms in Metrology (i.e., in all measurement),
known as the “VIM,” set into existence by international
vote in 1983 (ISO).
In the VIM (and such other handbooks, like the IUPAC Green
Book Quantities, Units and Symbols in Physical Chemistry)
“quantity” and “amount” are not synonyms,
despite the fact that Horwitz writes: “After reading
the paragraph innumerable times, I still did not see the distinction
between quantity and amount.”
Quantities in measurement include mass, length, time, and,
more specifically in chemical measurement, mass fraction and
concentration. Quantities are the things we measure. Amount
is a concept created to help us talk about “how much
is there of what we measure?”—usually in terms
of numbers of specified entities (in chemistry: the number
of specified particles such as atoms, molecules, or ions of
a specified substance).
Must we ask the question whether an internationally agreed-upon
specific vocabulary is there to be ignored when “globalization”
has also come to chemical measurement results, helping us
to determine the value of goods in trade? The use of one term
for different concepts or the use of several terms for the
same concept is a pain in the neck for non–English-speaking
people and for those who must translate these terms in 30
to 40 other languages and try to ensure that the same concepts
convey equally in all languages.
The continuing use of one of the most ambiguous terms in the
English language—the word "standard"—without
qualification is another case in point for people who are
not trained to the “interpretation in context”
so dear to the English-speaking part of the world, especially
when he or she comes from a culture with a totally different
language structure than the family of European languages.
It is not difficult to point to other similar examples.
in a nutshell, is an ongoing problem for many chemists conducting
measurements: Clusters of chemists (e.g., in the food, clinical,
environmental, industrial, and isotopic fields) have developed
their own terminology, thinking that they had to invent anew
their own basic concepts, applicable for their use only, to
be understood by themselves only, and usable in a jargon-like
fashion. This was done under the assumption that the jargon
could be translated in a simple way into other languages.
But it cannot.
Basic terms and concepts should be common to all measurement.
Common terms and concepts are prerequisites for making meaningful
translations in several languages and for intercontinental
Large cultural communities, each with their own language,
will have to decide whether they want the terms in their language
to cover globally understood and agreed-upon concepts. Therefore,
they need to respect a common and consistent vocabulary rather
than a dictionary. Only then can terms be consistently translated
from language to language. If we do not have, consult, or
use a common vocabulary (rather than an ordinary language
dictionary), how can we speak a common technical language?
Introducing metrological concepts in chemistry is like introducing
common communication tools for clarity; it’s a prerequisite
for understanding. And understanding is a prerequisite for
intercontinental agreements, including trade agreements.
De Bièvre <email@example.com>,
a long-time member of IUPAC, is an independent consultant
on metrology in chemistry based in Belgium. He is currently
a member of the Interdivisional Working Party for Harmonization
of Quality Assurance of the IUPAC Analytical Chemistry Division.
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