February 24, 2007

Tolerating variation, or not

An interviewee on Fresh Air (heard on KALW, 2/22/07)  referred to "people who are inimicable to our interests", and my ears perked up at "inimicable" (where I would have used "inimical").  So I started looking around in dictionaries and found that they either didn't list inimicable at all (AHD4, NOAD2) or treated it as a synonym of inimical (Dictionary.com, Wiktionary), in one case (Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993) noting that inimical was much more commonly used.  The OED had it, marked as "rare", with only two cites (from 1805 and 1833).  MWDEU said it was a "less often encountered" synonym of inimical.  A Google web search got 25,400 raw webhits, which isn't trivial -- but then inimical gets 1,240,000, over 30 times as many.

Now, when there are apparent synonyms, usage advisers either look for some subtle semantic difference between them (the usual tactic for "content words") or else recommend against one of them, as being unsuitable in formal contexts or as being generally unacceptable (the usual tactic for grammatical markers and "little words").  Advice writers are especially hostile to relatively rare alternatives and to more recent items.  Given the rarity of inimicable and its recency relative to inimical (which the OED has cites for from 1643), I expected inimicable to be the object of scorn in the usage manuals.  At first, I found no mention of the word at all, but then I struck paydirt in a few of the most recent usage dictionaries, Garner (1998), Garner (2003), and Fiske (2006, but not 2005).  How had inimicable escaped censure for so long?

I began with a sampling of usage advice (ranging from the excoriating to the scholarly) over the past hundred years.  Inimicable was not in Ayres, Bierce, Bryson, Dowling, any of the three versions of Fowler (original Fowler, Gowers's Fowler, Burchfield's Fowler), Peters, Shaw, or Trask.  Then I turned to more recent things, Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), its revised edition (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003), Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar (2004), and its "deluxe edition" of 2006, and got hits in three of the four volumes.

Garner (1998:374) tells us that

Inimicable for inimical is a fairly common error.  The OED records inimicable as a "rare" adjective, but it should be even rarer than it is.  [with examples from the Atlanta Journal & Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune]

Garner (2003:454) hardens the judgment, now saying "but it should be extinct", and adds a third example, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Fiske (2006:202-3) proclaims, in his usual scornful way, that it's not a word at all:

...inimicable, a nonword, not a nonce word, is mistaken for inimical by some... [with the example] In general, however, anti-Semitism refers to the denouncement in speech or writing of Jewish culture, traditions and attitudes as being inimicable to a nation's welfare. USE inimical.

My guess is that Garner and Fiske, noting the rarity and recency of inimicable, are taking it to be a kind of reshaping of inimical, along the lines of reshapings like overature, perculate, pectorials, and fellatiate.  These are all non-standard variants.  But there is a very close parallel to inimical/inimicable, namely unseasonal/unseasonable, and here both variants are standard.  I wrote about this pair on ADS-L back on 9/26/04, starting with:

... the seasonable/seasonal competition.  These two adjectives now have clearly different (but somewhat overlapping) meanings.  According to NSOED, they appeared at different times: seasonable and seasonably in Middle English, seasonal and seasonally not until M19.  Nevertheless, seasonal and seasonally have it all over seasonable and seasonably, presumably as a consequence of the frequency with which people want to convey one meaning vs. the other:

  seasonal:  8,440,000         seasonally:  785,000
  seasonable:   44,900         seasonably:   23,600

(In fact, if you do a Google web search for seasonable, you're asked if you meant seasonal, and similarly for seasonably/seasonally.  Google takes its numbers seriously.)

But now consider their negative versions.  MWDEU points out that unseasonal and unseasonable are essentially synonymous (ditto, I add, for unseasonally and unseasonably), and that unseasonal "is a very rare word".  Well, unseasonal (which I had thought, for years, was the ONLY acceptable word, until I realized that unseasonable was all over the place) definitely lags behind unseasonable, and unseasonally is HUGELY behind unseasonably:

  unseasonal:     13,300        unseasonally:     2,380
  unseasonable: 42,000        unseasonably:  67,900

So here, where the meaning difference is leveled, we see history mirrored: the earlier word continues to outnumber the later synonym.
(Garner (2003) differentiates seasonal and seasonable in meaning, but doesn't treat unseasonal/unseasonably.)

Ordinary people will tolerate synonyms, if they can see the variants as matters of personal style or as having different virtues.  Unseasonable and inimicable have the virtue of being longer than their alternatives, a difference in phonological weight that can translate into metaphorical weightiness -- greater seriousness and formality (cf. partially vs. partly, and British usage of prepositional vs. premodifying university names, as in vs. The University of Sussex vs. Sussex University).  Usage sticklers are generally less tolerant, tending to take the position that there should be Only One Right Way.  They strive, mightily and ingeniously, to find semantic differences between partially and partly, and they remind us that the prepositional versions of British university names are (in most cases) the official ones and maintain that the premodifying versions are casual and colloquial and should not be used in formal contexts (though I see no evidence that British speakers avoid the premodifying versions in formal contexts; the prepositional versions can be used to convey seriousness and formality, but the premodifying versions are still available in formal contexts).

Two things determine what appears in usage manuals.  One is how much of a stickler the author is; Garner is on the high end, and Fiske is extreme.  The other is what is fashionable in the world of usage advice.  This world is a kind of loose community, in which people influence one another.  As I said a while back:

... you develop your sense of style from the models around you.

You also develop your sense of style from explicit teaching and advice.  Once a proscription against sentence-initial however was articulated, it had a life of its own and could be passed from one generation of writers and teachers, in communities of stylistic practice, to the next.  Like other fashions in taste, it diffuses.

Apparently, no one had articulated a proscription against inimicable until recently, when usage advisers like Garner and Fiske got hold of the word and decided it must be an error.  Now the proscription is out there in the marketplace of taste and will probably be picked up by others.

I'm often puzzled why some usages get such opprobrium (in the face of the actual practice of good writers) while others go unnoticed and uncommented on.  Recently, I've been looking at preposition + of (out/outside/inside/alongside/off of) versus plain preposition (I intend to post on this eventually); many usage advisers are hostile to the versions with of: the of is said to be "superfluous" (Omit Needless Words!); the usage is (in most cases, incorrectly) labeled "colloquial", or even "non-standard"; it's believed to be more recent than the alternative (the of has been, inexplicably, added); and it's less frequent than the alternative.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to pay any attention to except for vs. plain except ("Nobody talked, except (for) Kim"), though you could try to mount a case against this for similar to the case against of.

Once a proscription -- even a silly one, like Dryden's Rule, banning stranded prepositions -- is in the marketplace, it tends to persist.  But where do the proscriptions come from?  Here, there's an enormous amount of randomness: somebody in the usage community happens to notice something that offends him (it's almost always a man) in some way -- often because he views it as colloquial or innovative or regional or used by the wrong sort of people, occasionally because that's not the way you do things in Latin -- and writes or teaches about it.  We then end up with a collection of personal quirks and accidents of history, a big grab-bag of assorted stuff.  Speaker-oriented hopefully gets excoriated, while speaker-oriented frankly and so on get a free pass.  Sentence-initial linking however is judged to be poor style, while sentence-initial linking consequently and so on escape the red pencil.  I could go on like this for quite some time.

It looks like inimicable got by uncensured until recently simply because no one was particularly offended by it.  Not any more.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 24, 2007 02:19 PM