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.