Thursday, August 21, 2014

Words of the Week: Critique and Criticism

Preamble / Ramble

This is a first for me and word of the week, as I typically consider a word without much personal context, but this week I am going to include a context. While at CAST this last week, I heard some valuable input regarding my blog. No matter how I get feedback, I try to take it and make it useful. I tend to be direct with my feedback, but for some, that can sound harsh, so this week I’m going to consider two different words. If you don’t want to hear the backstory, just skip down to the next section. However, for those that care, I do want to give some context and clarity in my own words. I have now heard from multiple sources that they felt my writing reflected a negative viewpoint towards the Software Testing World Cup 2014. I think that to be an inaccurate statement. I did have some issues with it, and I felt I was doing a deep dive analysis of both the pros and the cons of the contest, up to the point I had gotten. In assuming that I was writing a report about my experience with the contest, going into both the good and the bad. I also wanted to talk about what I could gain from the contest and what could be done better. In my second part I wanted to consider what the judges had to say, so I could learn where to improve as well as note what additional feedback would be nice to have. I understand that this is a contest, but I think the more important piece is what can be learned from it. To be fair, perhaps the organizers didn’t want what I had to say, as they actually asked for:

“At the moment we are very curious about your personal STWC experience. We would love to read blog posts or any other kind of written reports about your participation. It doesn’t matter if you write from your personal point of view or from the perspective of your whole team. We are interested in hearing how much fun you had during the competition, what you have learned from this experimental challenge, and what the difference is between testing while having fun together with friends and testing at work. We are also interested in how you communicated with your team members and what your team’s strategy was. Did you start testing right away or did your team follow a strategy? How did you create that strategy? What was your biggest challenge within your team, what kind of bugs were you able to detect and how did you like working with the Agile Manager tool?”

I took this to mean they were excited to receive any feedback regarding the design of their contest. They also wanted to hear what we did and why we did it. I heard that they were open for a critique of the process so that they could attempt to improve it. Furthermore, we were not told not to post scores, as we felt that it was important that those who participated could compare scores and learn where they could improve.  In fact I encouraged others to post scores, but no one actually did so. We also thought it might add value to future judging to see a relatively unemotional reaction to the scores given. We made the judge’s scores more anonymous as it felt important not to provide any identifiable information. However, it seems some saw what I thought was a critique others felt was criticism. This leads me to the two words, critique and criticism. Having re-read my content I can see that it could be read as criticism, and while I won’t take back my words, I will keep that in mind for the future. So on to the words of the week.

Back to our Regularly Scheduled Program

First allow me to define these two words in the way I think of them, without doing much research nor using Google to define the words. I think of criticism and critique as similar, but with a difference in tone and intent. To criticize someone is to give back negative statements, with either the intent to hurt/harm, with no positive points and to lack any possible ways to improve, be they implicit or explicit. Calling someone stupid is to be critical of someone’s intellectual factuality. It is likely intended to harm, has no positive points and does not hint at a way of improving. To critique is to provide feedback with the intent to improve a person or person’s work in some way. There is a mix of some positive points in the comments as well as negative comments. Gushing praise or all negative points is probably not a critique. Furthermore, at least some of the statements need to be actionable. Critique also feels very student/teacher-y. Criticism on the other hand seems like it refers to bullies and angry people shouting at each other. I want to capture this in a readable way for later usage:

Criticism Critique Gushing Praise

  • Negative comments
  • Intended for harm/hurt
  • No method for improvement provided.
  • Negative and positive comment mix
  • Intended to improve the content, person(s) or future
  • Provides methods for improvement.
  • Positive comments
  • Maybe intended for manipulation (even if meant to be ‘improve another person’s day’)

Now let’s see how I did. There are a lot of different people’s views on these words, so let me try to capture just a few of them.

Various versions of Critique and Criticism

According to the presently [August 20th, 2014] most popularly rated stack exchange view the difference is zero. They point out how in 1960’s academics started to try to use critique as a form of analysis rather than meant to censure, but that didn't stick.  They cite several modern examples of mixed usage of the terms. In comparison, Paul Brians, the author of Common Errors in English Usage, says:
“Josh critiqued my backhand” means Josh evaluated your tennis technique but not necessarily that he found it lacking. “Josh criticized my backhand” means that he had a low opinion of it.
Clearly their is some difference of opinion on the meaning of the word. In Writing Alone, Writing Together; A Guide for Writers and Writing Groups by Judy Reeves, there is a interesting comparison of criticism and critique:

“[1]Criticism finds fault/Critique looks at structure
[2]Criticism looks for what's lacking/Critique finds what's working
[3]Criticism condemns what it doesn't understand/Critique asks for clarification
[4]Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue/Critique's voice is kind, honest, and objective
[5]Criticism is negative/Critique is positive (even about what isn't working)
[6]Criticism is vague and general/Critique is concrete and specific
[7]Criticism has no sense of humor/Critique insists on laughter, too
[8]Criticism looks for flaws in the writer as well as the writing/Critique addresses only what is on the page”

(NOTE: I numbered the following quote for later convenience)

It is not completely clear some of the differences between criticism and critique, as I can find fault in the structure of a work, which leaves me in no mans land. Wait… wait…

I want to analyze my last sentence, using the rules listed above. In the second rule, I clearly have a criticism of the writing. The the third rule says if I had asked in the form of a question, if I had said “It appears not completely clear some of the differences…” and perhaps ended with a question mark it would have been a critique rather than a criticism. That appears to me to mean the syntax matters more than the semantic content in the author’s opinion?* Oh, this gets us to rule four. While I made my statement objective and honest, it might not be considered kind. I can’t tell if my statement could be seen as negative or positive. It certainly isn’t positive, so I’m going to read between the lines and call it criticism. I think my statement seems concrete and specific, even if no exact example was given. However, it isn’t full of humor, nor is most of my writing.** The final dimension is about the author. With no reference to the author, I think I am addressing only what is on the page. Ultimately it feels that this set of tools has limited value as it takes too much analysis and when you have 5 / 8 on the criticism side, is it criticism? To the definition's benefit, it does try to capture the concepts I stated early about providing some positive points and providing negative points without beating the subject up. It adds to my definition attempt that you should be addressing the content rather than external influences and adds the idea that the critical comments be concrete. However, it fails to address the possibility of simply gushing rather than capturing the areas of improvement.

Obviously my example is contrived, but look at the above paragraph as whole (yes, I’m getting meta) I would call it a criticism using the rules Judy Reeves developed, yet it wasn’t intended to be. So it feels wrong in some way or perhaps I’m simply wrong. In my mind, she is looking for more positive views rather then stressing the analysis. That is to say the message is less important than the presentation. In my opinion, I’m critiquing the content, because I follow my own rules as well as the new rules I have developed.

* Yes, that was intentionally sarcastic. I hope you can appreciate the joke.
** Ignoring the above *’d item. It wasn’t that funny anyway.*

To Sum Things Up

Some people don’t see a difference between criticism and critique. In more academic circles, it appears that a divide is seen, even if the divide is a little fuzz. Some see it as a difference of purpose, some see it as a difference of the message and some see it as a difference of the content.  How do I see it?  Well, let me capture the attributes I think matter:

Criticism Critique

  • Negative comments
  • Intended for harm/hurt
  • No method for improvement provided
  • May focus more on the authors over the content
  • "Censure, attack, abuse and name call"
  • Negative and positive comment mix
  • Intended to improve the content, person(s) or future
  • Provides methods for improvement
  • Address the content rather than the authors
  • Concrete examples
  • "Deep analysis of other people's work"

In reviewing my own work, I think it falls under the label critique, but I can see how others might read something into it.  Written critiques are hard to convey personality.  You can see that with my footnote joke above.  In going so meta, I was intending on injecting some levity into an otherwise highly intellectual process.  But others might see it as 'unprofessional' or they might read my words as snarky.  In getting my article reviewed, Isaac said he thought it was a little on the snarky side, but that in his view it was just right to make the point.  Outside of getting my content reviewed, I am not sure I can defend against hurting people with a wide audience and perhaps that is Judy's point.  By being kind, you avoid the question completely.  Do you have a critique or feedback for me?  Feel free to post in the comments.

As a sort of post script, I happened upon this site after I wrote this article.  As I didn't want to shoe horn it in, yet felt it was of some value, so I put it here.


  1. Nice post, very informative.

    In Swedish we have the same word for critique and criticism (kritik) which adds to the confusion even more.

    1. I'm glad you brought that up. To quote the English wikipedia, "Some authors draw a distinction between critique and criticism. The distinction is not made in French, German, or Italian, where the two words both translate as critique, Kritik, and critica, respectively." Later on it goes on to say "The term 'critique' derives, via French, from Ancient Greek κριτική (kritikē), meaning "the faculty of judgement", that is, discerning the value of persons or things." ( ) Clearly the idea of judging is here, but the intent is less than clear. That to mean is the point of having the two words. One has an intent to improve and the other has no such intention. I admit my bias is towards English words which often has a bias going back to Latin words. Even if you go back a ways, you can find people mix the two words. For example, again quoting wikipedia: "Philosophers such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos have popularized the idea, that criticism is a normal part of scientific activity. Relatedly, "scientific criticism" has become a standard expression, just as much as "literary criticism"." ( ). However, even then I would content the point it to harm the other position, that it isn't meant to build up that person's ideas but to replace them with better ideas. In the process the idea you criticized may be destroyed and the reputation of the individual maybe harmed, but the world as a whole may benefit. Perhaps ultimately, when speaking in a professional sense (and not the school bully sense) they are two sides of the same coin, but one is concerned with the individual and the other is concerned with the a more world view.

      - JCD