Taking the job description literally

Two recent Dilberts:




First Dilbert and the quality assurance guy Alan, then the pointy-haired boss and Alan.

Standard dictionaries don’t seem to have the technical use of assurance in quality assurance, though there is a techie Wikipedia entry on quality assurance that relates the expression to the verb ensure, rather than to the verb assure that the literalist Alan sees in it.

From NOAD2 on assurance, with my notes on the relationship between the noun assurance and the verb assure:

1 a positive declaration intended to give confidence; a promise: [with clause]: he gave an assurance that work would not recommence until Wednesday. [AZ: cf. He assured us that work would not recommece until Wednesday]

2 confidence or certainty in one’s own abilities: she drove with assurance. [AZ: cf. She was assured / certain in her driving]

[2a] certainty about something: the crowd’s assurance of Joe’s guilt. [AZ: cf. The crowd was assured / certain of Joe’s guilt]

3 chiefly Brit. insurance, specifically life insurance.

1 is a speech verb (involving a speaker, an addressee, and a proposition conveyed by the speaker to the addressee), 2 and 2a a mental-action verb (involving a belief arrived at by some route, including the case where the belief is instilled by someone else’s speech, but also allowing for a number of other possibilities).

Alan in the cartoons is using assurance-1, while assurance in the hymn Blessed Assurance (“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! / O what a foretaste of glory divine!”) is assurance-2a (‘I am assured / certain that Jesus is mine’). (Discussion of the hymn in a 12/14/10 posting.)

Then comes Wikipedia on quality assurance: a long piece aimed at a tech-savvy  business audience, not so easy for ordinary people to penetrate. A bit from the beginning, with the crucial verb boldfaced:

Quality assurance (QA) is a way of preventing mistakes or defects in manufactured products and avoiding problems when delivering solutions or services to customers; which ISO 9000 defines as “part of quality management focused on providing confidence that quality requirements will be fulfilled”. This defect prevention in quality assurance differs subtly from defect detection and rejection in quality control, and has been referred to as a shift left as it focuses on quality earlier in the process.

The terms “quality assurance” and “quality control” are often used interchangeably to refer to ways of ensuring the quality of a service or product.

So, yes, it’s about ensuring quality. From NOAD2:

ensure make certain that (something) shall occur or be the case: [with clause]: the client must ensure that accurate records be kept.

[a] make certain of obtaining or providing (something): [with two objs.]: she would ensure him a place in society.

[b] [no obj.] (ensure against) make sure that (a problem) shall not occur.

The derived nominalization would of course be ensurance — but that would be too close to insurance. A usage note from NOAD2:

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both US and British English, the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is more likely to be used, but insure and ensure are often interchangeable, particularly in US English: bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial | the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained.

The nominalization ensurance in the sense ‘the action of ensuring or making certain’ is in fact not just rare, but way beyond rare: OED2 marks it as obsolete, and has only two cites (from 1654 and 1688). Instead, assurance steps in.

This means that quality assurance isn’t semantically compositional. It’s an idiom — tough news for literalists like Alan, but idioms are everywhere.

One Response to “Taking the job description literally”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    For a good part of the time from 1994-2009 I was a Software Testing Manager, and thus the analogue of Dilbert’s Dilbert’s QA Manager. Quality Assurance is about process. That is, the QA person doesn’t add quality to a product–it’s not something you can sprinkle on something like fairy dust. It’s creating and maintaining the processes that facilitate producing products that are fit-for-purpose. Quality control, on the other hand, is picking items at random from the production line to ensure that they meet the required standard of quality. If you ever want to lose the will to live, read the ISO9001 standard document and all will be revealed to you.

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