Able Action

When the audience isn't in on the definition

English has no grammar police to prevent someone from taking a word and putting it to work with another meaning, though teachers armed with rulers often act as auxiliary police officers. As a result, secondary meanings often creep into the language, usually through specialized groups that co-opt terms for their own jargon.

Education and human resources are among the groups most often ridiculed, er, prone to coming up with terms only insiders will understand. (Whoever thought up the term “career banding” to describe job and salary classifications should not be surprised to hear that it evokes images of metal bands placed around the ankles of employees to track their migration habits.)

The problem comes in when the audience isn’t in on the definition. For example, if someone told you that your comments were “actionable,” you would be forgiven if you were then in fear of being sued. “Actionable” has been used in legal contexts for hundreds of years to mean “furnishing ground for a lawsuit”—the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to 1591.

But as it’s being used more and more, “actionable” also means “ready to go or be put into action.” So someone who tells you that your comments are “actionable” is actually paying you a compliment—you said something that you or someone else can act upon.

The OED traces that usage to 1915, and has drafted a 2004 addition to the 1989 edition, which includes a secondary definition of “actionable” as “able to be acted upon or put into practice; useful, practical.” Of the other major dictionaries, only the New Oxford American Dictionary and Random House Webster’s Unabridged include the secondary definition, with Random House’s example: “to retrieve actionable copy from a computer.”

More frequently, “actionable” is used in business or training contexts to mean coming up with ideas that can actually work. It’s been showing up a lot in press releases and trade publications, and has been creeping into mainstream news reports, especially in legislative contexts. But when it’s used as jargon, or in an unfamiliar place, it can confuse a reader. “Under recreation and culture, councilors want a comprehensive strategic plan for the parks system pursued so that an actionable vision is developed,” one news report said, in a perfect example of jargony babblespeak.

As long as the use of “actionable” is clear in the context, there should be few objections to its use. Just make sure the comments are not “actionable” in the original sense.

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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.