Let’s Not Fight About It

It’s arguably not worth it

For unknown reasons, English speakers insist on making the language more difficult than it already is, by modifying words to use in different ways. Who was the genius, for example, who decided that “irregardless” was better than “regardless”?

Those people are “arguably” not well educated. Wait! Does that mean we’re saying that they are not well educated? Or is it “arguable” whether they are, thus putting it into question?

Historically, “to argue” or to have “an argument” meant to debate the point, giving reasons for or against the thing under discussion. In later years, probably because voices are frequently raised when people don’t agree on something, the “argument” became negative. “To argue” now has more than a hint of unpleasantness about it, purely legal contexts aside.

Along comes “arguable” and “arguably,” where the noun and verb have turned into adjectives and adverbs, modifying not just a word, but the entire statement that precedes or follows it. Logic would have them carry the same connotations as their roots, with both meaning there was some question that could be heatedly debated. But look at these two sentences:

“The Greenwood native was arguably the Hogs’ most productive weapon at the end of last season.”

“Whether he and the city council have struck the right balance between cuts and tax increases is of course arguable, but Coleman has stood for responsible long-term fiscal policies.”

In the first, the writer seems to be saying that the Greenwood native is “probably” the most productive member of the team. In the second, though, the writer is saying that there’s some “question” whether the right balance had been struck. The adverb, “arguably,” usually means “there’s little to discuss about this,” while the adjective, “arguable,” usually means “this is open to disagreement.” They’re making almost opposite “arguments.”

The use of “arguably” to mean “I’m almost positive about this” is relatively recent, accelerating in the past fifty years. Although the context usually indicates that the writer is taking the position that the statement is protected from “argument,” its close relationships with all of the other “argue” words can introduce momentary confusion in readers. And as The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says, “its use is especially heavy in journalese.” It might be better to revert to such unambiguous words as “likely,” “possibly,” or “probably.”

Here’s a case where the writer wanted to have his argument, and argue it, too:

Arguably, this money would have to be spent, no matter what government was in power. But that is arguable.”

Guess he’ll just have to “argue” with himself.

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.