Taking responsibility

Some uses of "liable" are likely to be questioned

A friend was handicapping the Academy Award nominations, though they’re still months away. “Sandra Bullock is liable to win best actress for Gravity,” he said.

Another friend interjected: “If she’s liable to win, what’s the penalty?”

That second friend believes, as many others do, that “liable” is not a synonym for “likely” or “probably.”

“Liable” means “legally bound or obligated,” “likely to have, suffer from, etc.,” and
“subject to the possibility of; likely (to do, have, get, etc. something unpleasant or unwanted),” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. The first definition, the oldest, is the one most often meant when “liable” is used. A court finds someone “liable for damages” in a slip-and-fall case, for example, meaning that person is deemed responsible for the fall and may be required to provide some restitution for the damage caused by the fall.

Though its origins are a bit murky, etymologically speaking, “liable” probably arises from ancient words related to “ligature,” meaning “binding.” And since being “bound” is a negative thing, not a positive one (except for B&D disciples), most definitions lean to the negative. The New Oxford American Dictionary for example, includes a definition as “likely to experience (something undesirable): areas liable to flooding.”

Since most of the dictionaries use “likely” as part of their definitions, it would be reasonable to assume that “liable” and “likely” are synonyms. But many usage guides are likely to disagree.
“Liable,” says Garner’s Modern American Usage, “should not be used merely for likely. Liable best refers to something the occurrence of which risks being permanent or recurrent,” implying negativity. On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary says in a usage note to “liable,” “likely” “ascribes no particular property to the subject that would enhance the probability of the outcome.” (We’ve already discussed whether “likely” can be used instead of “probably.”)

But that same AmHer usage note pooh-poohs the solely negative outlook of “liable”:

A traditional rule holds that liable should be used only if the subject would be adversely affected by the outcome expressed by the infinitive. The rule therefore permits Tim is liable to fall out of his chair if he doesn’t sit up straight but not The chair is liable to be slippery, though constructions of the latter type have long been common in reputable writing.

Proceed at your own risk, but be prepared to accept responsibility for your readers’ reactions.

While we’re discussing responsibility, remember that “liable” is not the same as “libel,” nor should they be pronounced the same. If you “libel” someone, you’re “liable” to be sued. But that makes a nice segue to next week’s topic, the differences among “libel,” “slander,” and “defamation.” Hint: You’re liable to be surprised.

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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.