Too many ‘options’

“There ought to be alternative options that can be successful for us, and the key is to have strategic optionality,” an executive said in a Q&A in The New York Times recently. Another executive, in another Times article, speaking of a delay in the Fed’s raising of interest rates, said: “It leaves the door wide open to a September liftoff, but still retains the optionality to delay hiking if the jobs reports disappoint between now and mid-September.” And a couple of months earlier, a third executive was quoted by Reuters as saying: “Our focus remains on delivering our committed projects and managing our balance sheet while maintaining optionality in the portfolio for future growth as the oil price recovers.”

That’s a lot of options. In fact, substitute “option” for “optionality,” and the sentence really doesn’t change.

“Optionality” is what Bryan A. Garner might call a “needless variant”: “two or more forms of the same word without nuance or differentiation.” His Modern American Usage is rife with them, including “abolishment” instead of “abolition,” “consistence” instead of “consistency,” and “dismission” instead of “dismissal” (though “dismission” is much older).

The Oxford English Dictionary traces “optionality” to 1880, in Scotsman magazine: “How much optionality there may be in an option which is allowed to opt only in one direction may yet be a question for the learned.” That sure sounds like sarcasm.

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A 1991 reference the OED cites, from Computing magazine, seems almost pure jargon: “In most data models, explicit constraints are shown by the restrictions of degree and optionality on the relationship types.”

In fact, “optionality” is probably jargon as much as it is a “needless variant.” One clue is whether specific businesses or fields of study have adopted it.

Well, linguistics, the science of making sense from language, did it: The OED cites a 1972 definition of “optionality”: “The property or fact that a particular grammatical rule or pronunciation can be used or not.” (Think, for example, whether “pecan” is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable or the second.)

In Nexis, of about 500 hits in the past six months, many uses of “optionality” are in quotations, and most are in business contexts, lending weight to the jargon classification. So far, “optionality” seems not to have escaped much into mainstream usage.

Its usage in books soared after 1960, according to this Google ngram, but seems to have fallen from favor.

A small shade of meaning might save “optionality” from being that “needless variant.” If you think of it not as the “option” itself, but as the ability to maintain “options,” it might qualify as a modification of the adjective “optional” rather than the noun “option.” 

That’s how it made it into the Merriam-Webster dictionaries: in the “optional” entry. In the OED, it’s defined as “the property or fact of being optional” as well as its linguistics usage.

It’s not yet in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one the Associated Press and many news organizations use, or in the American Heritage Dictionary, but since dictionaries follow usage rather than lead it, that’s not surprising.

Using “optionality” instead of something simpler, like “the key is to have strategic choices available,” is not wrong, but clarity argues that it should be optional.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.