April 23, 2009

Language Tips: empiric or empirical, efficient/effective/efficacious/effectual

Posted in among/between, effective, effectual, efficacious, efficient, empiric/empirical at 7:00 am by dlseltzer

Sighting:

Here’s a sighting with commentary from Alan.

“I am taking a different tact and am focusing on the way the implications of reducing excessive meat consumption would relate to a number of major global concerns.” Source: Barry M Popkin, Reducing Meat Consumption Has Multiple Benefits for World’s Health, Arch Intern Med vol 169 no 6 Mar 23 2009, p543

Comment: As a day sailor, I am pretty sure the phrase “taking a different tack” (not tact) originates from nautical usage. See: http://dictionary.reference.com/dic?q=tack&search=search

Nautical. a. a rope for extending the lower forward corner of a course. b. the lower forward corner of a course or fore-and-aft sail. c. the heading of a sailing vessel, when sailing close-hauled, with reference to the wind direction. d. a course run obliquely against the wind. e. one of the series of straight runs that make up the zigzag course of a ship proceeding to windward.

Of course, Alan is correct.

Tip 1: empiric or empirical

While reviewing a proposal recently, I came across this sentence (slightly changed to protect the author’s identity):

These studies provide strong, empiric evidence that this therapy is well-received and effective.

What’s wrong with this sentence? At first glance, nothing, but something was making me go back to it again and again. Then, it hit me, you can’t have empiric evidence; what the author undoubtedly meant was:

These studies provide strong, empirical evidence that this therapy is well-received and effective.

The correct adjective is empirical, which means derived from observation, experience, or experiment as opposed to theory.

Empiric was not even used as an adjective until relatively recently. As a noun, it refers to a person (according to the American Heritage Dictionary and others):

1. One who is guided by practical experience rather than precepts or theory.
2. An unqualified or dishonest practitioner; a charlatan.

A very interesting combination of meanings.

I only found empiric used as an adjective in on-line medical dictionaries. My hardcover 1993 medical dictionary does not include it which makes me believe that this use is relatively recent. Empiric may be used as an adjective in medical lingo: Empiric therapy refers to treatment that is provided before a firm diagnosis is made–usually antibiotic therapy.

So there you have it: other than empiric therapy, empiric refers to a quack, and empirical refers to data-driven findings.

Tip 2: effective, effectual, efficacious, efficient

Are there differences in meaning between these words–efficient, effective, effectual, and efficacious? There are, indeed, subtle differences, and the differences can be difficult to parse. But let’s give it a shot.

First, we can take care of efficient. The difference between efficient and the other words is pretty clear. Efficient means capable of achieving the desired effect WITH an economy of time, money, and energy. Something can be effective, effectual, or efficacious without being efficient.

But the other three?

Effective: sufficient to produce the desired result. If something is effective, it simply works. In medicine, a drug or therapy is effective if it relieves the condition it is intended to relieve.

Efficacious: capable of producing the desired result. If something is efficacious, it can, given the right conditions, work. In medicine, a drug or therapy is efficacious if it is proven to work in a clinical trial. However, the conditions required for using the drug/therapy may be overly complex for routine clinical practice; thus, the drug/therapy is efficacious but not effective.

Effectual: sufficient to produce the desired result in a striking way. Effectual is the same as effective but on steroids. If something is effectual, it works decisively. The difference between effective and effectual is in the quality of the outcome. The outcome is the same but the quality is more pronounced; it feels more definitive.

Confused yet? Wait, there’s more.

Effective and efficient can apply to people or things. Efficacious only applies to things (a person cannot be efficacious). Effectual almost always applies to things, which is screwy since ineffectual almost always applies to people, but that’s English for you.

[NOTE: Why was it okay for me to use between in the first sentence of this tip when I was referring to four words? Tradition has it that between is used when talking about two things and among is used when talking about more than two things. Part of this is true: When talking about the relationship of two things, between is the word you must use, not among.

I can’t see any difference among my recipe and your recipe. WRONG

I can’t see any difference between my recipe and your recipe. RIGHT

However, when you are talking about more than two things, and the things are individual things or there is a one-to-one relationship, you must still use between.

The distance between the bus stop, the hospital, and the office is not that great. RIGHT

The distance among the bus stop, the hospital, and the office is not that great. WRONG

When you are talking about more than two things, and they are in a group or collection or not individualized, the correct word to use is among.

We swam among the tropical fish, dazzled by their shapes and colors. RIGHT

We swam between the tropical fish, dazzled by their shapes and colors. WRONG

And that’s why between is correct above.]

5 Comments »

  1. ajay said,

    excellent explanations. crisp & cogent.

    • Fedell said,

      Wow, clarity is an understatement. Your explanation is so effective and efficient that it can be called effectual….lets leave efficacious out of it. (lets hope I learned well)

  2. Anonymous said,

    Thanks!

  3. Anonymous said,

    Wonderful efforts!

  4. Some genuinely good information, Gladiolus I noticed this.


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