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I'm having an argue with my colleague about the phrase he wrote. I suggest, it can sound extremely rude to native speakers.

The context: my colleague accidentally spotted errors in certain programming code and tried to inform the maintainers of the code. He wrote a request as follows: "Tests are written with numerous gross mistakes. For example" and then few excerpts of the code followed.

It seems to me that in the given context "gross" can be interpreted as "disgusting", while "mistakes" sounds accusing despite the wrong code may be not their fault. I'll be grateful if you prove or disprove my understanding of the phrase's tone and rate its rudeness 1 to 10.

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    Gross in this context means obviously wrong and unacceptable - the disgusting sense is informal. We know that accuracy is essential in computer programming. I would describe your colleague's comment as severe rather than rude. He could more tactfully have said something like "Unfortunately I found several rather serious errors". Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 17:08
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    I would find that quite rude if someone sent it to me about my code. On the other hand if someone said that a political decision had been a gross error that would be fine.
    – mdewey
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 17:17
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    @mdewey I think that it'd have its proper purpose if the errors were sufficiently grave and obvious.
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 13:00
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    Note that the question says "gross mistake" but comments and the example in the answer say "gross error". While they will both be understood and are synonymous, "gross error" is far more common and sounds more natural than "gross mistake". Either is rather harsh and may not be a good idea if you're trying to persuade (as opposed to being able to order) them to help.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 16:13
  • "It seems to me that in the given context "gross" can be interpreted as "disgusting"" Fortunately, you're simply wrong. "Gross" here means "Large". It's that simple.
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 12:45

5 Answers 5

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Your understanding of the word gross is correct, it does have a meaning similar to disgusting. That is however the second definition listed by Webster. The first applies directly to the situation at hand.

a(1): glaringly noticeable usually because of inexcusable badness or objectionableness
a gross error

If the originator of the phrase is not a native speaker it may be that they have simply picked up this word and are using one of the meanings correctly.

That said, given we're talking about ownership of code the use of the word "gross" is probably less important that simply adding any qualifier. Synonyms such as "obvious", "large" or "significant" would be likely to produce the same response in the recipient. You're pointing out errors in something they've written and they're unlikely to be very happy in the first place. The additional qualifier comes with a subtext that these are not simple mistakes or oversights, but signs of incompetence.

That is perhaps a harsh reading of the addition of a single word, but considering the qualifier does not actually tell the originator anything useful about how to fix the issue it really isn't worth including at all.

When writing comments on pull requests or other code reviews, it is best to ensure your comments are clear, address the issue and provide guidance on the changes required or at least what the problem with the code is. A simple "This is wrong" is no use to the code's owner, they wouldn't have created the pull request unless they thought the code was ready.

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    See this excellent guide to humane (and effective) code reviews (a follow-up to this one about best practices when being reviewed). Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 18:15
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    'Gross' can mean 'disgustingly repulsive', maybe arising from teen, street, or 'Valley' talk, e.g. 'I saw a turd at the picnic' 'Yuk! Gross!', but otherwise, it just means 'obviously wrong and unacceptable', e.g. a gross error, an act of gross indecency, disrespect, carelessness, or misconduct. In my country, an act of gross misconduct will get you fired on the spot without notice, whereas minor misconduct might just get you some kind of warning. Used this way, 'gross' is still a strong word, and should be avoided by anyone who hopes to have a reputation for good communication skills. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 18:49
  • More recently, see also conventionalcomments.org
    – cmbuckley
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 16:48
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    I don't think the original statement is "rude;" nevertheless, I do think this answer uses a better word: Tests are written with numerous glaring mistakes.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 16:48
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    IMHO, "glaring" and "gross" do not mean quite the same thing, though. "glaring" simply means "particularly noticeable" (that is, "anybody who looked at this should have been able to see it"). "gross" (in the sense of "gross error"/"gross mistake") implies more "unacceptably large" or "inexcusable" (that is, "this never should have happened in the first place"). This is why "gross" can often come across as rude, because it is implying something negative about the person who made the mistake (that they did something unacceptable/inexcusable), which "glaring" does not necessarily say.
    – Foogod
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 18:41
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In software engineering, we have some widely agreed terminology for this kind of thing. Your "mistake" should be described either as a "flaw" (a possible cause of a problem) or a "fault" (the cause of an actual problem). You then classify the severity of the flaw or fault using terms like "low", "medium" or "high" with an agreed meaning in terms of its operational impact. Describing a software problem as a "gross mistake" doesn't help anybody.

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    I agree with this comment, if you stick to unemotional technical language you're far less likely to offend than using terms such as gross that I would certainly read as insulting (in the sense that it implies some level of incompetence. Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 3:56
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tl;dr A gross mistake in programming is like a "critical" bug in that it's a mistake not falling into a lesser category. Assuming that the speaker was expressing an objective point, I wouldn't take it as rude at all.


Gross things aren't easily described in limited terms.

Gross is when something evades description as a limited subset of a conceptual framework.

For example, "Orders of magnitude (length)", Wikipedia, has a neat comparison showing the relative sizes of things. Including this image.

After looking at those sizes, how big is a planet? How about a star? A solar-system? A galaxy? A galaxy-cluster? Or, the observable universe?

Those things aren't all of maximum size. In fact, a planet can be utterly tiny compared to other objects. Still, when folks are talking about sizes, even a planet may be so large as to evade description as being of a size other than the maximum a person would generally conceptualize. And so, all of those things are grossly large.


Examples of how things can be gross.

Some common areas of usage:

Encompassed/saturated space Examples Effective meaning
Quantifications Gross income,
gross revenue,
gross weight,
GDP (gross domestic product),
gross sales,
gross salary,
gross volume,
gross count,
gross rate.
The most encompassing version of the quantification, without exclusions.
Qualifications Gross misconduct,
gross negligence,
gross rebellion,
grossly justified,
grossly deserved,
gross departure.
The qualification applies strongly, beyond limited notions of the qualification.
Sensory perceptions Gross scent,
gross image,
gross feeling.
Overwhelming to the senses (which is usually unpleasant or/and disruptive).

Usually, ideas don't saturate the conceptual-frames in which they're discussed. However, when they do, they're "gross".

Examples:

Concept Normal (not necessarily "gross") Gross
Income Some notion of incoming gains. The fullest notion of income.
Mistake Some deviation from properness. Often mistakes can be described as having a type and degree. Overflowing deviation from properness. May defy explanation as a single type of mistake or/and be extreme in degree.
Taste Some departure from the background sensory perception of "no taste". Often taste can be described as having a type an degree. Overflowing deviation from background. May defy classification as a type or be extreme in degree.

Because grossness is about encompassing/saturating a conceptual space, it can be pretty subjective.

However, folks generally find things that saturate their conceptualizations to be unpleasant. There are strong feedbacks between conceptualization and acceptance:

  1. Accepting something promotes conceptualization of it.

  2. Lack of conceptualization drives rejecting something.

Note that repeated exposure expanding conceptualization is called desensitization, which tends to shift perceptions away from grossness.

Which gets into the difference between grossness and badness. For example, someone may not care for the taste of something common-but-undesirable, e.g. stale bread, though such tastes wouldn't really be "gross".


Regarding "gross mistakes" in the OP.

The context: my colleague accidentally spotted errors in certain programming code and tried to inform the maintainers of the code. He wrote a request as follows: "Tests are written with numerous gross mistakes. For example" and then few excerpts of the code followed.

It seems to me that in the given context "gross" can be interpreted as "disgusting", while "mistakes" sounds accusing despite the wrong code may be not their fault.

A gross mistake is a mistake that isn't easily described as a lesser sort of mistake. This is, it's a mistake of maximum extent in the speaker's conceptual-framework.

By analogy, say you have a bug-reporting system, where you classify all bugs as Minor, Small, Normal, Large, Major. Here, the OP was saying that they found numerous bugs in the Major category.

I'll be grateful if you prove or disprove my understanding of the phrase's tone and rate its rudeness 1 to 10.

Assuming that they were being honest, it wasn't rude at all; 0/10.

By analogy, it's like a teacher giving a student an F on an assignment on which the student makes sufficiently many mistakes as to be graded an F according to the normal grading scale. In that, sure, the student may not be happy about that result, but it's not reasonable to say that the teacher was being rude in objectively assessing the student's work.

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    I'm experimenting with explaining word-definitions without resorting to piecewise definitions. For example, this answer was meant to explain the definition of "gross" without the simplifying-approximation that its various common usages are different.
    – Nat
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 20:26
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    This is correct! The original meaning of "gross" was simply "large". It does however ignore the fact that in some contexts, "gross" simply does mean "disgusting" because usage can shift the meanings of words. Your explanation is great, and does cover all the uses of "gross" that aren't at all disgusting (like in the question), but I think it should acknowledge meaning shift in other contexts as well. Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 1:31
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    Nice explanation. As a native speaker I "knew" this -- which basically means I didn't, except as a bunch of disconnected instances.
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 12:08
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It is rude, but not for the reason you presented. In this context, "gross" doesn't mean "disgusting", it means "flagrant". It is an intensifier, and implies that the mistake displays an inordinate amount of incompetence. Describing the effect of a mistake as large is one thing, but describing the mistake itself as large is quite another.

while "mistakes" sounds accusing despite the wrong code may be not their fault.

What you quoted was written in the passive voice, which means that it isn't directly accusing anyone specifically.

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  • Describing someone check-in, pull requested code, as containing a "flagrant" error could also be considered rude.
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 15:31
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Talking about software should be fairly objective, so normative words like "gross" should be kept out of it. Calling something a mistake or error is enough.

But am I the only one that feels that "mistake" is a very mild word, and so the adjective "gross" feels incongruous? You can have a gross blunder, maybe a gross error, but not a gross mistake. It's like a "gigantic pony".

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