Wording Error? Correct Wording That Is Confusing Because It Seems Erroneous?

Claims that certain usages are "bad" because they supposedly create ambiguity are sometimes overstated. But sometimes they're not overstated -- sometimes a term seems to be used in a certain way that's both wrong according to the dictionary, and likely to confuse. Consider this paragraph, from the New York Times "A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs" article:

Mr. Wales and Mr. O'Reilly were inspired to act after a firestorm erupted late last month in the insular community of dedicated technology bloggers. In an online shouting match that was widely reported, Kathy Sierra, a high-tech book author from Boulder County, Colo., and a friend of Mr. O'Reilly, reported getting death threats that stemmed in part from a dispute over whether it was acceptable to delete the impolitic comments left by visitors to someone's personal Web site.

Now "impolitic" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "Not politic; not according to good policy; unsuitable for the end proposed or desired; inexpedient." The relevant definition of "politic" is "judicious, expedient, sensible; skilfully contrived. Note that this means something quite different from "impolite."

Yet in context, it seems unlikely that Sierra would have deleted comments because they were injudicious, inexpedient, not according to good policy, or unsuitable for the end proposed or desired. It's possible she might have deleted them because they were senseless, but probably not because they just weren't sensible. It's also possible she might have deleted them because they were so unskilfully contrived as to seem incomprehensible or cranky, but again probably not because they just weren't thought through very well. Given that the debate is about politeness online, that comments are deleted fairly often because they're rude, and that comments are (to my knowledge) rarely deleted because they're injudicious or inexpedient, it sounds like the article author (or an editor) meant to say "impolite" and instead said "impolitic."

Yet what if Sierra did delete comments because they were impolitic, not impolite? My sense is that even then the term "impolitic" would be suboptimal, precisely because it might lead some readers to wonder whether there was an error (and lead other readers to fall prey to the error themselves, and read "impolitic" and "impolite").

Perhaps writers shouldn't have to worry about reader error or about reader misperception of possible writer error. Maybe if "impolitic" is right, the writer should be free to use it regardless of the possibility of confusion. But I doubt it: It seems to me the job of a writer, and especially a journalist, to try to avoid misunderstandings, even misunderstandings that stem from a misunderstanding of a statement that's literally correct (or erroneous suspicion that the statement is incorrect). There may be some exceptions, for instance if you're deliberately playing on the similarity of the words in a way that's amusing, insightful, or memorable; but I see no such justification here.

So if context makes the reader expect a reference to "impolite," but you're really trying to say "impolitic," better to use some suitable synonym for "impolitic" (injudicious, inexpedient, or what have you) and avoid the possible confusion, including confusion about whether you are confused. Better still would be to be more concrete and precise, and explain (briefly, of course) exactly what the impoliteness or impoliticness consisted of, thus avoiding confusion and at the same time avoiding vagueness.

You have my fulsome agreement.
4.9.2007 6:51pm
Chuck Jackson (mail):
inflammable versus flammable. As I understand the story, "flammable" was coined because some people thought that inflammable meant not easily ignited. See Wikipedia entry on flammability
4.9.2007 6:58pm
To quote a High School English teacher of mine:

Precision in Language!
4.9.2007 7:03pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Chuck: Note that inflammable/flammable is a different matter from impolite/impolitic. The first pair are synonyms; the second pair are not. In the first pair, "inflammable" is best avoided by people who want to minimize risk of misunderstanding, especially when the cost of misunderstanding is an explosion; "flammable" is, to my knowledge, a substitute for "inflammable" safely comprehensible by everyone, though a few people in my experience have gotten annoyed by it (for no good reason, I think). In the second pair, both terms are usable, but in different contexts: "Impolite" is not an adequate substitute for "impolitic," and "impolitic" is not an adequate substitute for "impolite," but "impolitic" may be confusing in some contexts, even if it is not incorrect.
4.9.2007 7:07pm
Henri LeCompte (mail):
Reading the Times quote, I get the sense that the author was intentionally being imprecise. To create a feeling of delicacy, or even of understated irony.

In other words, he didn't want to say "impolite" because that wording was too... bald. So he went for politically correct over precision, if you catch my drift.

But that's just one man's person's opinion.
4.9.2007 7:32pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The trouble I see here is that "impolitic" is so vague that you don't quite know what was wrong with the deleted comments. Were they injudicious in content? Or rude? Or both? There's no way to know. Actually you don't even know if the flame war arose over some actual comments, or simply over the discussion of a hypothetical.
4.9.2007 7:39pm
Richard A. (mail):
At first glance I thought the disputed language was the phrase "dedicated technology bloggers." Are they dedicated bloggers? Or are they blogging about dedicated technology?
4.9.2007 7:40pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Duffy Pratt: While "impolitic" is somewhat vague, I don't think that under its normal definition it includes "rude." If the writer meant "rude," then he used the wrong word.
4.9.2007 7:48pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
You are no doubt correct to imply that the similarity between polite and politic has contributed to a drift toward parity in their meanings.

But I'm not sure I can concur with your judgment that the Times is wrong in a "dictionary" sense. If impolitic means "not politic," we might as well look up politic as well. When we do, we get a lot of definitions that are awfully close to "polite" in meaning.

Impolite comments are often glossed as impolitic because they are "inexpedient" in terms of their effect on the conversation. (As you yourself have so recently noted: link.
4.9.2007 8:07pm
I understood the usage. An example of an impolitic statement that is also impolite is a troll--if the goal is a real, easy to follow, discussion, then a troll derails that. Similarly, any reply to a troll is impolitic, further derailing the conversation, but not necessarily impolite.

Or excessive grammar-nazism--that can be polite, but still impolitic. Or anything too off-topic.

I guess I'd have to see what comments were deleted, to see what the article's author meant.
4.9.2007 8:15pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Eugene: I certainly see this as more a matter of a drift in meaning than an outright error. 'Impolitic' is used in an ironic sense to mean 'undiplomatic', a four-bit word for 'rude'.

Perhaps take the writer to task for pitching the tone of the writing above the necessary, but I don't find any simple error. I side with Pyrrhus that 'politic' informs the meaning of 'impolitic' most importantly. 'Politic' does mean, in essence, 'polite', but in particular circumstances.

My CD-ROM based OED is currently experiencing technical difficulties, else I'd cite.
4.10.2007 12:16am
Peter B. Nordberg (mail) (www):
I don't see any error or dubious word choice here. I also don't see how the quoted sentence from the NYT is ambiguous, confusing, or misleading. Meanings listed for "politic" in the Unabridged Random House Dictionary (2d ed.) include "tactful, diplomatic." Meanings listed for "impolitic" include "not politic." I can think of many utterances that I might call undiplomatic, untactful, or impolitic without necessarily wanting to brand them as "impolite" or "rude." For one thing, both "impolite" and "rude" carry markedly judgmental connotations, at least to my ears; "impolitic" is more normatively agnostic (a positive feature, maybe, in a story trying to maintain a vaguely even-handed posture about the appropriate level of civility in blog comments). For another, "impolitic" is a somewhat broader concept and may come closer than "impolite" to capturing the universe of utterances under discussion.

Vague words exist for a reason. Sometimes a vague word is appropriate because any more specific word would risk misleading the reader. Sometimes a more muscular word would distract from the expository flow. And sometimes, an excess of precision would simply be impolitic.
4.10.2007 12:56am
I think we should table the matter.
4.10.2007 1:01am
Ignorance is Bliss:
I once read an advertisement for a business that touted 'over 15 years of unqualified experience'. They were using the word unqualified accurately based on it's second dictionary definition: 'not modified, limited, or restricted in any way; without reservations'. However, I don't think that's how most people would read it.
4.10.2007 8:13am
markm (mail):
Lev: Ouch! (I assume that you're being ironic, in full awareness of the opposite meaning of "to table" in American and British usages.)
4.10.2007 10:48am
markm (mail):
IMO, "rude" is a much better reason for deleting posts than "impolitic", "undiplomatic", or "impolite". "Impolitic" or "undiplomatic" leave me wondering whether the reason was being rude, off-topic or politically incorrect - and if it's the latter, the blog gets deleted from my bookmarks. "Impolite" is weaker than "rude"; Miss Manners might delete something for being merely impolite, but you get a more robust discussion if actual rudeness is required to delete posts.
4.10.2007 11:18am
I see some similar problems with the phrase "politically correct." In my mind, political correctness means that certain words or ideas, which are generally accepted as true or reasonable, are made, out of some egalitarian concern, off-limits (no matter how politely expressed) to spare the feelings of others (i.e., "differently-abled" and "mentally challenged" are used instead of "handicapped" and "mentally retarded"; writing an article that posits a link between the availability of abortion and the reduction in crime (a la Steven Levitt) is wholly inappropriate).

It seems, however, that "politically incorrect" is often used to refer to (and perhaps justify) personal opinions that are (in both content and manner expressed) impolite, nasty and/or obnoxious (i.e., ranting that the U.S. military are cowards for "lobbing cruise missiles" (a la Bill Mahr); what was written about the Catholic Church on the blogs of Sen. John Edward's former staffers).
4.10.2007 3:03pm