What the new Google VR headset can teach us about grammar

Photo by Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

Google has a new virtual reality headset, which one publication described as “an iterative upgrade from last year’s headset.” The comparatively ancient Apple iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are “iterative alternatives to the iPhone X,” another said.

Lest you think only gadgets can be “iterative,” an architectural exhibition investigates a studio’s “iterative design methods.” And a theater company uses an approach in which “new stage works are nurtured through an iterative process of readings, critiques, and rewrites.”

We have a new candidate for “Buzzword Bingo,” the game jargonistas love to play: “iterative.” And, like most entries, the word itself is not new, but a relatively new usage has gained in popularity.

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Most of us are familiar with the word “iteration.” “Neither iteration of ‘Dynasty’ can be separated from its devotion to materialism and the one percent,” a New York Times review said. A football story opined that “Oregon State spent decades as the doormat of the Pac-12 in its previous iterations, and finds itself back in the cellar.” From those context clues, we understand “iteration” to be a synonym of “version.” You could substitute “version,” and the meaning of both passages would not change.

That would indicate that “iterative” is just another “iteration” of “version.” So if we use an adjectival form of “version,” “versional,” would the sentences at the beginning still make sense?

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Google VR is a “versional upgrade from last year’s headset”? The new Apple iPhones are versional alternatives to the iPhone X”? An architectural firm has “versional design methods”? New stage works “are nurtured through a versional process of readings, critiques, and rewrites”?

Those substitutions don’t quite make sense. That’s because “iteration” and “iterative” have less to do with versions then they do with sequence or repetition.

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In mathematics, computing, science, and linguistics, “iterative” means “repetitive,” but not just repetition for repetition’s sake. A formula, computer instruction, grammatical form, etc. is repeated to reach or indicate an outcome or condition. A mathematical formula might be “iterated” so that it repeats, using the results of each previous “iteration,” until the formula is either proved or fails. A computer “iteration” would be a loop of repeated instructions, each building on the last, until a desired outcome is reached or it becomes an infinite loop.

Each “iteration” might not be an exact repetition, but a slightly different “version.” And that seems to be the way “iterative” is being used: something that is almost a repetition, but slightly different.

So the new Google VR headset, iPhones, etc. differ slightly from the old versions, but are recognizable as very similar to their predecessors.

That sounds a lot like “incremental” change. But “incremental” has become its own buzzword, generally meaning a small change, and it has a flavor of a failure in many contexts: “Incremental” increases in revenue are not as desirable as “jumps.” “Iterative” sounds more like “better than the last,” with the flavor of geeky science added.

Most dictionaries don’t even include the “version” meaning of “iterative” and “iteration” as part of their definitions. The ones that do indicate that those usages came much later than the original.

“Iterative” as an adjective traces to about 1490, the Oxford English Dictionary says, keeping its repetitive meaning intact until it was adopted by mathematics in the 1920s, which explains its jump into existence on the Google n-gram below. It leaped into more common usage in the 1960s, corresponding with the age of computing.

“Iteration,” which traces to about the same time, had a fairly steady popularity in the mid-19th century, but also rocketed with “iterative,” though always appearing more often.

To reiterate, whether your audience understands “iterative” will depend on its context. If you can use more familiar and descriptive words like “improved,” “changed,” “version,” or the like, you might not have to repeat yourself.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.