Let’s End The GIF/JIF Pronunciation Debate Right Now 

Let’s End The GIF/JIF Pronunciation Debate Right Now 

Once a week, for the past eight-odd years, I overhear it: “It’s GIF, not JIF.” “Actually, it’s officially JIF.” If the arguers are educated in the subject, they will rattle through their supporting arguments: It’s JIF because its inventor says so and it’s like “giraffe”; it’s GIF because it stands for “graphics” and it’s like “gift”.

Photo by Sander van der Wel

Obviously everyone’s having a bit of fun, and arguing over how to pronounce an acronym is just a cute way to pass the time. Only it isn’t so cute any more. The debate has thoroughly been had, and there’s nothing to add.

There’s a seven-point defence of GIF on howtoreallypronouncegif.com and a five-point defence of JIF (and a regularly updated blog) on The GIF Pronunciation Page. There’s even a weird Great Compromise proposal by coder-blogger Andy Baio. The GIF is 30 years old. Debating its pronunciation is as fresh as a “hang in there” kitten poster.

Like the Oxford comma debate, the tabs/spaces debate, and the spaces after a period debate, GIF/JIF pronunciation is best treated as a matter of style. Just pick one, be consistent, and deal with the consequences of your choice. As linguist Steven Pinker told The Atlantic:

It’s not that good writers have chosen to flout a rule; it’s that the rule is not a rule in the first place… What makes a rule a rule? Who decides? Where does it come from? They write as if there’s some tribunal or rules committee who makes the rules of English, which there isn’t, or that it’s a matter of logic or objective reality, which it isn’t.

Each of these debates involves valid points, and unlike GIF/JIF, some of them have consequences. An Oxford comma can prevent misunderstandings, which is why it’s crucial in legal matters; a missing comma cost one dairy company $US10 million ($13 million) in wages.

But the comma is not a one-stroke solution to all phrase ambiguity. As Pinker points out, language is too ambiguous: You can rearrange “a panel on sex with four professors” to the less salacious “panel of four professors on sex”, but you’re back in trouble if the panel is “on drugs”. That’s why the AP Stylebook (anti-comma) and the Chicago Manual of Style (pro-comma) both note possible exceptions. As the Chicago Manual puts it, “it’s best to stay flexible.”

Similarly, the tabs/spaces debate has real consequences — tabs decrease file size; spaces are more precise. Each of these, in certain situations, matters! Just not enough to obliterate the other option. The most important thing, says coder and Stack Exchange founder Jeff Atwood, is team consistency:

Choose tabs, choose spaces, choose whatever layout conventions make sense to you and your team. It doesn’t actually matter which coding styles you pick. What does matter is that you, and everyone else on your team, sticks with those conventions and uses them consistently.

The answer is not a lyrical “Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?” but a reasoned “Which f**k shall we give?” Have a reasonable debate, decide how you’d decide any other moderate decision, then abide by that decision.

Tiny inconsequential debates are tempting because they’re a safe space to debate larger issues. When you fight for the Oxford comma, you’re really fighting for precision of meaning; when you call it JIF, you’re protecting the moral rights of the inventor; when you correct the record on double-spacing after sentences, you’re championing historical revisionism.

That’s why these petty arguments get so heated, and also why it’s important to maintain some perspective. Every meaningful team has some disagreements about form and style, but every effective team works through them. I’ve written happily for pro- and anti-comma editors; I live in an interfaith GIF/JIF household. We put aside our differences so we can fight the real enemy: People who give no damns.


  • For some reason, I pronounced it “gif” for ages but when I became aware of the pronunciation debate I unintentionally started calling them “jifs”.

    I am more annoyed at how they appear inline of articles than any pronunciation discussion. Having a looping image is more than just a little distracting when you are trying to read.

    • A standard pronunciation for Data? Ha! We are more likely to obtain world peace.

      In Australia: dä’tə (as in father, palm)
      In the USA/Ireland: dă’tə (as in bad, cat)
      In the UK: dā’tə (as in day, pain)

  • If it’s pronounced “JIF” not “GIF” then start spelling it JIF” not “GIF”.

    If you can’t spell how it’s said without spelling it how it isn’t spelt, then it isn’t said how you don’t spell it.


  • I have some videos on YouTube. Someone started this flame war in my comments. It gets intense.

  • I like Mike Rugnetta’s approach on Idea Channel: pick neither by saying “ZHAIF”. I do have a strong contrarian streak, though.
    Also, Weird Al on Word Crimes:
    Not related to GIF vs JIF and agnostic on Oxford commas, just fun and semi-relevant.

  • And more importantly, what about MOOG versus MOGE (correct) and maroon (correct) versus marone (weird Australianism).

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