March 3, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: drop/decrease & practically/almost

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:42 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Drop or decrease

A reader writes:

Have you ever done anything on using “drop” vs. “decrease” in medical writing? Are they interchangeable? For example, is it acceptable to write


“The number of deaths dropped by 10 per cent from 2002 to 2003, from 201 to 181,”


or would it be better to write


“The number of deaths decreased by 10 per cent from 2002 to 2003, from 201 to 181”?


I couldn’t find the topic in the archive on your website (maybe because they’re synonyms and it’s a non-issue?).

 

My first reaction to this email was that when used this way, the words are synonymous, and this isn’t a real issue. And, even now, after I have given it some thought, I have to admit that I don’t have strong feelings about this. My reasoning is this: I think that anyone reading either of these sentences will get the meaning of the sentence. There is nothing ambiguous here.

On the other hand…don’t you hate that? There is always an ‘other hand.’

On the other hand, if I had my druthers, I would use ‘decreased.’ Why? Two reasons really: the first is that ‘decrease’ is more formal than ‘drop,’ and often, in our scientific writing, we opt for formality. The second reason is that ‘decrease’ is more precise a word than ‘drop,’ and we are striving for both clarity and precision in our writing. When I look up ‘decrease’ as a verb used without an object on dictionary.com, I find only one meaning—to diminish or cause to diminish. When I look up ‘drop’ as a verb used without an object, I find fourteen meanings. So, by definition (literally), decrease is the more precise word.

But as I said, no strong feelings.

Tip 2: Practically or almost

A reader writes:

I saw this in the New York Times:

“This latter promise is pleasing populist rhetoric. The problem is, it may be neither politically nor practically feasible.”

In my view, practically means almost — as in I’m practically done eating; where as practicable means feasible — and thus to say practically feasible is not only wrong but redundant.  What do you think?

I hate to disagree with a loyal reader, but I respectfully disagree. (I wrote about practical and practicable a few years ago [https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/practicalpracticable/] but the issues with ‘practical’ and ‘practically’ are a little different.

‘Practically’ can mean ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’; however, that usage is considered informal or slang. It has become somewhat standard, especially in conversation, but it is not the first meaning you will find in dictionaries. For those dictionaries that include ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ as a meaning, it is usually the third or fourth definition. And I would reserve this usage for conversation only and not use it when writing.

Moreover, if ‘almost’ were accepted as the meaning, there is nothing redundant about saying ‘it is almost feasible,’ but I don’t think that is what the news writer intended.

The primary meaning of ‘practically’ is ‘in a way that can actually be done’ or ‘in a useful manner’ or or ‘not theoretical but in practice.’ Actually, the most common definition of ‘practically’ is ‘in a practical manner,’ but I hate it when dictionaries define words using the word or some form of the word you are trying to look up. If you are actually trying to find the meaning, it is not particularly helpful, and it also strikes me as kind of lazy. But, I will save that rant for another day.

Let’s get back to practically.

Garner suggests that we look at it as the opposite of ‘theoretically.’ That works for me, and helps me to distinguish ‘practical’ from ‘practicable,’ which means ‘theoretically feasible.’ So, when you are talking about something that is ‘practical,’ you are talking about something that can actually be done, and when you are talking about ‘practicable,’ you are talking about something that theoretically can be done. ‘Feasible’ means the same as ‘practicable.’

Are you still following this?

Getting back to the example the reader provided,

“This latter promise is pleasing populist rhetoric. The problem is, it may be neither politically nor practically feasible.”

I think what the New York times writer was saying is this: the promise cannot be kept or carried out in theory or in practice. I don’t see this as redundant; however, I will give the reader this: I think it is an example of bad writing; better word choices could have been made all around.

1 Comment »

  1. Julie Samms said,

    I love the work you are doing. There is so much misunderstanding about language usage, we all need a site like this to reference. Thanks!


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