The language used in CERN
While it's interesting to work in a multi-lingual environment, this often
means that words from one language gets used in ways that are unintelligible to native
speakers of that language. I remember being baffled and bemused by the
"since a long time"s, etc. I heard on first arriving at CERN. Here are some common examples for the case of
English. They may help new arrivals understand the strange
expressions they hear at CERN and, perhaps, help others to use English
The most worrying thing is that hardly anybody ever bothers to correct these
misuses, to the point that they are even adopted by native speakers who work
here for long enough.
Correct usage is in green, wrong
usage in red.
False Friends (PDF) from the Desktop Publishing group makes a start with
a few examples.
- "Informatics material", a classic example of
false friends, is not English. The correct translation of
matériel informatique is "computer
equipment". In English the word materiel (without the
accent) is used only in a military context.
- The preposition to is not used with the verb participate.
One would never talk about "participation
to a conference". You
might participate in a discussion,
meaning that you took an active part in it, but
you would simply attend a conference.
- Responsible is an adjective, never a noun: the
safety officer, not "the
responsible of security"; the
in charge of this equipment, never "the
responsible of this equipment".
- Loose is nearly always an adjective,
meaning the opposite of tight or not firmly attached (there is a rare
and somewhat archaic usage as an verb, usually in connection with dogs).
The word usually meant is lose, as in: if
you change the main quadrupole strengths too much, you will lose the
- In most countries, the unit of length is a metre.
A meter is a measuring device.
- We enter appointments in our diaries (or
our agendas (an agenda is a list of subjects to
be discussed at a meeting, not one of those little books with a space for
each day, or their modern equivalents).
- The preposition that goes with the verb associate is with,
not to, in mathematics as everywhere else.
- Another common one appears on the CERN Home Page today: "Search
of exotic new Physics in ... " should be 'Search
for exotic new Physics in ..."
- Different primarily means "not the same as" in English. Thus
deployment of resources by the different
groups (raising the question: what are they different from?) would more
idiomatically be expressed
as deployment of resources by the various
groups (although the dictionary definition of various is similar) or, better, sending people from various groups to do the work.
- The English for formulaire is form,
- Coherency and core
competencies should be coherence and core
competences. The extra i or y
has crept in only in recent years and is not necessary. Similarly,
while there is a word dependency, the intended meaning is usually
dependence (as in "the dependence of luminosity on beam size").
- Does every subject, malfunction, defect, topic,
item, failure, mess, bug or matter have to be called an
even when everyone agrees about it ?
Please don't spell names of computer programs or languages in capital letters
unless they are initialisms (abbreviations by the first letter of each word) or you are still using a
- Fortran, not
FORTRAN as it's not an acronym (it was short for "Formula Translation", no irony intended).
- The Web, not
WEB; it's a complete word, not short for anything.
- Mathematica, not
and so on, but
Other things which are abbreviations and must be written in capitals:
- RF, not rf.
- RMS, not rms
or even r.m.s.
Dates and times
There is a creeping tendency to write dates in mm/dd/yy format in CERN and
elsewhere in non-English speaking European countries. Thus we see 8/9/2005 or
August 9, 2007 where we would normally write
9/8/2007 or 9 August 2005.
It might be argued that the long form is not ambiguous but it is plain that
habitual use of the month-first long form engenders a tendency to use the highly
ambiguous short form. This is an unnecessary source of confusion,
especially as people's diaries become ever more crowded with meetings.
This seems to be the result of a mistaken belief by non-native English
speakers that this is how you write dates in English. In fact, this format
is mainly used by some people in the USA (but only for 364 days of the year) and
in a very few other places. In most places in the world (including all
CERN Member States, most English-speaking countries and the US Federal
Government), the convention is to use the more logical dd/mm/yyyy format.
Another cause of this misuse is that people do not configure their computers
correctly (even though it's very easy - see the International options in the
Windows Control Panel, for example). Of course, this should be set up
as default on CERN computers but it isn't!
There is no need to convert 16:15 into
4:15 PM for the benefit of English speakers.
Most of us can count well beyond 12 and it is shorter and more logical (avoiding
the well-known ambiguities just after noon or midnight).