I am not a grammar expert.
Did you see that? If you didn’t start this post over because that first line is important. I do write often and I have a particular style that I like to follow, but most importantly, I am a student of the English language and not an expert.
THAT SAID… There are certain things that people do that really grind my gears. I think it has to do with being granted access to a thesaurus too early in life, or lazy students aiming for a minimum page count. Regardless, the result is the usage of certain words to sound smart even though their usage makes you sound dumb. Today I want to cover a word that if used will make me tune out and discount the next several words you utter. That word, is ‘agnostic’.
Services groups tied to product companies have had to find ways to tell prospective customers that they can approach problems without the default solution being to “buy my product.” SOMEWHERE down the line, someone started telling prospects not to worry about any perceived bias because they were “vendor agnostic.” Let’s take a look at some common definitions for the word agnostic:
- A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God. (Oxford)
- A person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god (Merriam-Webster)
- A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as god, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. A person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study. (Noun from Dictionary.com)
- Asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge. (Adjective from Dictionary.com)
Companies telling you that they are vendor agnostic are both elevating vendors to deity status while not believing (or disbelieving) said deities exist. Hmm, I don’t think that is the right message. If I am pitching services to a prospective customer, I am trying to convey that I will not have any bias toward (or against) one specific vendor over another. Meaning that it doesn’t matter if you have Checkpoint, Cisco, Fortinet, or Watchguard firewalls in place, my folks understand what firewalls do, and we will focus on helping you, Mr. Customer, not helping any one vendor make a sale.
So if we don’t mean agnostic, what do we mean? What word should we be using instead?
- An impartial or unbiased state or person. (Noun from Oxford)
- not engaged on either side; specifically: not aligned with a political or ideological grouping. (Merriam-Webster)
- Not aligned with or supporting any side or position in a controversy. Of no particular kind, characteristics, etc.; indefinite: a neutral personality that made no impression whatever; a sex-neutral job title. (Adjective from Dictionary.com)
NOW we are talking. If someone tells me they are vendor neutral, they are telling me that they are impartial, unbiased, and specifically not aligned with any one vendor. That’s what I think people are trying to say when they throw out the term vendor agnostic. Further exacerbating the issue is the number of responses you get when searching for “vendor agnostic” on your favorite search engine. Some sites even go as far as to define it!
Neither term is an acceptable substitutions for the other in the Oxford thesaurus, so why would we use the word incorrectly? Ultimately, this is how language evolves. As much as it bothers me, slang terms like ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’ actually appear in several English dictionaries. In twenty years, will the “gotta sound smarters” of the world force a major dictionary to re-define the concept of vendor agnosticism?
Here’s one vote for vendor neutrality.