Can I ask questions about the etymology and correct spelling of technical programming terms on this site?

Specifically, we ended up in a discussion over at Stack Overflow if it is correct to spell a certain technical term: ones' complement or one's complement.

Obviously these have different grammatical meaning but the origin of the term is unclear and Wikipedia doesn't seem to be a reliable source in this case. It seems to be an etymology question more so than a programming question. However, a certain amount of technical knowledge might be necessary in order to provide an answer.

  • 1
    Most etymology questions are off-topic, unless they're in the context of language contact, which doesn't seem likely for most programming languages.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented Jan 10 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


I don't think you would find the necessary expertise here (unless by chance, since many SE users are programmers). Here are some etymology questions that are considered to be interesting. What these have in common is that answering them requires some knowledge of linguistics, such as historical-comparative methods or details of situations of contact between languages.

Much programming terminology is defined, and quite recently. To understand why tail recursion is called tail recursion it is probably enough to follow the citation trail to the first time it was used, where the author will probably have given some reason for the term. This may get a bit messy since even some technical terms were used in spoken language before they enter the written record, but even in such cases I am not convinced that a trained linguist will be able to add much to the discussion.

In the specific case of ones' complement, Wikipedia refers to Knuth, who explains why it should be ones' in his view. That many people think it should be one's could be explained by the linguistic notion of analogy (on the model of two's complement). I don't see an easy way to explain why people think it should be ones' if the original were one's. If it is indeed easier to explain a change from ones' to one's than the other way around, this could be construed as an argument (based on linguistic insight) for ones' as the original. But it remains the case that the best answer to this question would be given with reference to the original source for the term.


I would ask that on English Language and Usage instead if you're interested in the English grammar behind it, and Retrocomputing if you're interested in how it was used from the earliest days. I don't think Linguistics will give you the kind of answer you're looking for.

  • I actually found that very question asked at English Language and Usage. But it had the same "answer" as the one we came up with on SO, namely "Knuth says so". Knuth being a famous computer scientist who seems to have invented the notation of moving the ' from singular "two's complement" to plural "twos' complement", to express different meanings, explained here (very technical). But he didn't invent the original terms. Retrocomputing might be suitable though.
    – Lundin
    Commented Jan 11 at 7:43

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