An example of the problem in an aggravated form surrounds the controversy of France changing ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’ in official paperwork - where the controversy suggests the new standard implies one parent is 'secondary' and the designation may induce completely unnecessary family conflicts.

In technical writing this may happen also; we have two or more completely independent identical units/objects/devices, which need to communicate. Any of them may initiate the communication, and this will assign them specific roles, but before the conditions occur, they are perfectly equivalent and so suggesting any order, priority, sequence etc would be misguiding - but we still need to distinguish them; assign them some designations when describing the situation. Marking them "Unit A, B, C"; "1, 2, 3"; "X, Y, Z", "Alpha, Beta, Gamma" this all is a specific sequence. I might try using symbols, 'unit @, unit *, unit %' but I believe this by itself would be rather confusing, never mind not yielding itself for verbal communication.

Can you suggest a convenient set/system of identifiers to use e.g. in technical writing or legal documents, that doesn't imply any order or priority of the options, but still allows to reference them uniquely?


I think you may be overthinking the issue.

In technical writing when you name three entities with elements of a specific subset, the ordering of the specific subset doesn't come into play unless it is specifically stated. There are plenty of examples where the common "A,B,C", or "X,Y,Z" are used without underlying assumptions of "who come firsts" or "who is more important". Luckily enough, technical writing is somewhat shielded from those kind of controversies.

Answering your question, though, you could try:

  • Assign full names to your entities. This is often done in telecommunications examples or in cryptography (Alice and Bob, exchanging messages...). If you don't like inventing name, you could use the Nato Phonetic alphabet. To be sure, following an alphabetic convention won't free you of an underlying order. Another drawback of this soluton is that full names are not concise; if you have a lot of entities to name, you'll see your text fill up with Alices and Bobs.

  • Use a color coding. Your entities can become Red, Green and Blue. This is somewhat assimilable to the alphabet, since you can easily shorten those to RGB. Yet, if you pick your names from colours, nobody will be able to claim that you are making assumptions about who's more important.

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    I think color coding, especially using non-primary, more obscure color names is a great solution. There's plenty of them and I don't think most of them evoke any special connotations. – SF. Mar 1 '19 at 12:59
  • I also like the color choice -- just be aware of your audience and any associations they have with colors. Blue may be calm for most people, but "code blue" in a hospital is pretty scary, so for medical workers, I may choose a slightly less common word like "Indigo" or "Azure." Some cultures have white=death, others have white=purity. Once you've chosen potential colors, you can use something like random.org/colors/hex to randomly choose which colors are next, so each chapter or document doesn't have the same ones first. – April Salutes Monica C. Mar 1 '19 at 14:42
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    Can't get the idea out of my head now about legal documents using the terms "Parent Red" and "Parent Blue" 👏👍😅 – David Mulder Mar 1 '19 at 15:28
  • I think you may be overthinking the issue. +1. Because if a problem exists, it's the inability of two parents to both pick the same 'one' in a "tick box" on some form. – Mazura Mar 2 '19 at 2:33

Assign them a cycling index "number" upon discovery. Use an arbitrarily large sequence, orders of magnitude larger than needed.

enter image description here

To further the concept of an oversized indexing system, letters are sometimes combined with numbers. Perhaps hexidecimal with an advancing cycle larger than 1

Parent L7KQ6 verses Parent Z3M19 sounds suitably dystopian.

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  • +1 for the dystopian setting, but you can still assign an ordering to the set of alphanumeric strings! Parent L7KQ6 still comes implicitly before Parent Z3M19, and what injustice that is! – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 '19 at 13:43
  • LOL I agree, it only obfuscates the implicit order, but also defines the order in a non-hierarchical way (it is however chronological, even though it is obfuscated too). With a large enough counting integer (which is unknown), the dataset rolls over. L7KQ6 might actually come after Z3M19, depending on how big the jumps are, or the total volume on the index system. – wetcircuit Mar 1 '19 at 14:28
  • Or you could just make it L7KQ6 and 3ZM19, respectively. – user Mar 1 '19 at 19:25

Full names and arbitrary names are good solutions to the question you asked. To address the question behind the one you asked -- the implicit "superiority" in ordering -- write examples that don't start with the first unit. For example, I might describe a database with nodes A, B, and C, and then talk through an example where B acts as the initiator in processing a query. Who says it has to be A? The names are arbitrary, after all, so don't start all your examples with the first name in your ordered set. (For that matter, why not have nodes K, L, and M?) If you have users Alice and Bob and Carol and Dan, try having Dan or Carol be the first ones to act in a scenario.

There is value in having sequential names in some kinds of diagrams and examples, like that database cluster (where there might be way more than three nodes). Don't make your documentation less usable by talking about nodes 12, 37, 42, and 139 instead of 1-4 or A-D. But you don't always need meaningful names and you don't always need to match "first in the sequence" with "first in the example or sequence of actions".

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I don't think most readers would assume that the order in which you list things implies a priority. If you're going to give a list, it has to be in SOME order. If you said, "I work with three guys: Al, George, and Fred", I think few would assume that this means that Al is better or more important than George and Fred.

That said, if you're concerned that readers may make such an assumption, just add a sentence saying the order is not significant. I see this every now and then, a writer will say, "The members of the group, in no particular order, are ..."

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