Let's End The GIF/JIF Pronunciation Debate Right Now 

Photo by Sander van der Wel

Once a week, for the past eight-odd years, I overhear it: "It's GIF, not JIF." "Actually, it's officially JIF." If the arguers are educated in the subject, they will rattle through their supporting arguments: It's JIF because its inventor says so and it's like "giraffe;" it's GIF because it stands for "graphics" and it's like "gift."

Obviously everyone's having a bit of fun, and arguing over how to pronounce an acronym is just a cute way to pass the time. Only it's not so cute any more. The debate has thoroughly been had, and there's nothing to add.

There's a seven-point defence of GIF on howtoreallypronouncegif.com and a five-point defence of JIF (and a regularly updated blog) on The GIF Pronunciation Page. There's even a weird Great Compromise proposal by coder-blogger Andy Baio. The GIF is 30 years old. Debating its pronunciation is as fresh as a "hang in there" kitten poster.

Like the Oxford comma debate, the tabs/spaces debate, and the spaces after a period debate, GIF/JIF pronunciation is best treated as a matter of style. Just pick one, be consistent, and deal with the consequences of your choice. As linguist Steven Pinker told The Atlantic:

It's not that good writers have chosen to flout a rule; it's that the rule is not a rule in the first place... What makes a rule a rule? Who decides? Where does it come from? They write as if there's some tribunal or rules committee who makes the rules of English, which there isn't, or that it's a matter of logic or objective reality, which it isn't.

Each of these debates involves valid points, and unlike GIF/JIF, some of them have consequences. An Oxford comma can prevent misunderstandings, which is why it's crucial in legal matters; a missing comma cost one dairy company $US10 ($13) million in wages.

But the comma is not a one-stroke solution to all phrase ambiguity. As Pinker points out, language is too ambiguous: You can rearrange "a panel on sex with four professors" to the less salacious "panel of four professors on sex," but you're back in trouble if the panel is "on drugs." That's why the AP Stylebook (anti-comma) and the Chicago Manual of Style (pro-comma) both note possible exceptions. As the Chicago Manual puts it, "It's best to stay flexible."

Similarly, the tabs/spaces debate has real consequences — tabs decrease file size; spaces are more precise. Each of these, in certain situations, matters! Just not enough to obliterate the other option. The most important thing, says coder and Stack Exchange founder Jeff Atwood, is team consistency:

Choose tabs, choose spaces, choose whatever layout conventions make sense to you and your team. It doesn't actually matter which coding styles you pick. What does matter is that you, and everyone else on your team, sticks with those conventions and uses them consistently.

The answer is not a lyrical "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?" but a reasoned "Which fuck shall we give?" Have a reasonable debate, decide how you'd decide any other moderate decision, then abide by that decision.

Tiny inconsequential debates are tempting because they're a safe space to debate larger issues. When you fight for the Oxford comma, you're really fighting for precision of meaning; when you call it JIF, you're protecting the moral rights of the inventor; when you correct the record on double-spacing after sentences, you're championing historical revisionism.

That's why these petty arguments get so heated, and also why it's important to maintain some perspective. Every meaningful team has some disagreements about form and style, but every effective team works through them. I've written happily for pro- and anti-comma editors; I live in an interfaith GIF/JIF household. We put aside our differences so we can fight the real enemy: People who give no fucks.


Comments

    Lokk, GIF is an image format, JIF is a cleaning product. Argument over.

      The guy that created the file format says it's pronounced with a soft 'g', so THAT there should be argument over. Another unrelated product existing doesn't change that.

      BTW Ajax is also a cleaning product but that doesn't stop it also being an acronym for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML.

        Just because he's the creator doesn't mean he can't be wrong.

        Looking at you, Sakamoto.

        It's an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format. As such, it adopts the hard G of the first word of the acronym. Very few (if any) acronyms soften the first letter where the initial word begins with a hard pronunciation.

          I know what it stands for. That doesn't mean much when the creator has told us how to pronounce it.

          Let me ask you a question - the application called "GIMP" - how to you personally pronounce that? If you pronounce it with a hard 'G' then you're wrong according to your logic because it stands for "General Image Manipulation Program" (or GNU Image Manipulation Program). I'm pretty sure you don't pronounce GIMP with a soft 'G' yet that's how it should be pronounced according to you.

          Also consider that A LOT of acronyms that don't form pronounceable words (often called initalisms) - in fact the vast majority of them are all commonly said using the names of the letters, which are usually the soft sound regardless of the words they are derived from. GMT = Greenwich Mean Time. GPS = Global Positioning System. GSM = Global System for Mobile. GC = Gamecube. GB = Gameboy. GBP = Great Britain Pound.

      He has a point. I'd rather not have to think twice and consciously draw my mind away from the cleaning product every time someone says "Jif". Then again, I've had to do that very thing with "gif" and "gift"

    Jif is Peanut Butter in other parts of the world.

    Is also crap at cleaning bathtubs....

      Downvoted, because peanut butter is actually very good at cleaning bathtubs. It is abrasive (especially the soft version) and can easily be rinsed off with dish-washing liquid.

      ;-)

    i will pronounce it like i always have "GIF" because its spelt with a G and JIF also exists as a word that has the J sound, so my logic is if JIF cleaning product is said with a J sound, then GIF must be said with a G sound. i own and back my own decision on this.

    lets not start lay-go and leg-o debate either.

      When i had a speech therapist in Primary School, i was taught how to pronounce G's. Not one time did i get told that a 'G' followed by an 'I' gave a sounded resembling that of the pronunciation of Germany.

      This is why i study Japanese, don't get these debates.

    Please provide TLDR;

      TLDR; Pronounce it how you want, if you piss people off, tough shit for them :P

    I'm definitely in the G-if club rather than J-if.

    Whilst we're on the subject, I thought (irritating) YAML files had put paid to the spaces vs tabs thing a long long time ago?

    Until someone can demonstrate precedent for a word derived from "graphic" that is pronounced with a soft "g", I'll be sticking with "GIF".

      Sure, I can answer that one: GIF!

    ... It's an acronym, you can pronounce it however you like.

    Yeah, pronounce it Gee, Eye, Eff :)

    So it turns out I've been pronouncing Gizmodo wrong all this time too.

      That's a completely different site.....

    Do we still care about this? Why not both?!

    Actually its pronounced "Throat wobbler Mangrove".

    As with all language morphs, it'll change with time and perceptive linguists are unloved nappy sniffers.

    It was originally JIF, as per creator. It then became public domain, and regardless if should or should not, has become GIF.

    I stick with the pronunciation of the closest spelt word, which as far as I know is gift.

    The fact that you have to differentiate how it sounds by spelling it JIF pretty much invalidates that whole side of the argument.

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