Can I Question You An Ask?


Words mean things! — Justin Warren (@JPWarren)


As a reader of my blog, you know that words are my tradecraft. Picking the right word to describe a topic or a technical idea is very important. Using incorrect grammar can cause misunderstandings and lead to issues later on. You’re probably all familiar with my dissection of the Premise vs. Premises issue in IT, but today’s post is all about interrogatives.

A Question, You Say?

One would think that the basic question is something that doesn’t need to be explained. It is one of the four basic types of sentences that we learn in grade school. It’s the easiest one of the bunch to pick out because it ends in a question mark. Other languages, like Japanese, have similar signals for making a statement into an interrogative declaration.

Asking a question is important because it allows us to understand our world. We learn when we ask questions. We grow as people and as professionals. Kids learn to question everything around them at an early age to figure out how the world works. Questions are a cornerstone of society.

However, how do you come up with question? In what manner do you call for an answer to an interrogative statement? How do you make a request? Or seek information? How do we know how to relay a question to someone at all?

We. Ask.

Note that ask is a verb. It can be transitive or intransitive. It’s something that we do so transparently that it never even crosses our minds. We ask for directions. We ask for help. We asking for a lunch suggestion. But every time we do, we are using the word to perform an action. Until we aren’t.

Ask Not

A trend in IT that dates all the way back to at least 2004 is the use of ask as noun. Note that this would take the form of the following:

What’s the ask here?

That’s a mighty big ask of the engineering department.

I’m still looking for the ask here.

Even though this practice has roots that stretch back even further, the primary use of ask as a noun is in the IT space. The same group that thinks on-premise refers to a location believes that asks are really questions or requests. Are they using it in the same way that they shorten premises by one syllable? Do they need to save time by using a one-syllable word in place of a two-syllable one?

Raymond Chen’s article linked above does have a bit of insight from even a decade ago. The idea behind using ask as a noun really comes from trying to wrap a demand in a more palatable coating. Think back to the number of times that some has an ask and substitute the word request or demand and see if it is really appropriate there. Odds are good that it fits seamlessly.

If we go back to the idea that words still mean things and that precision is the key to saving time instead of shortening words, then why are we using ask instead of the other words? Is it, as Raymond says, because the speaker is trying be passive-aggressive? Are they trying to avoid using a better, more inflammatory word? Or do they truly believe that using ask is a better way to convey things? Maybe they just hope it makes them sound cool and futuristic?

Tom’s Take

Hearing ask as a noun makes my ears crawl. Do we question asks? Or do we ask questions? To we make requests? Or do we request makes? Despite the fact that the use of ask as a noun comes back time after time from history, it quickly goes away as being awkward and non-specific in conversation. I think it’s due time for this generation of ask as a noun to disappear and be relegated to the less important questions of history.