Practicable Practical

Some time ago, I promised that I would write about Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences. And I haven’t yet. And I won’t today. The truth is that I had an idea for an article about this book and some disagreements I had with it. Unfortunately, I never wrote them down. So now I’ve read the book a second time to see if anything reminded me. It didn’t. I still have some things to say about it, but I find that I don’t disagree with Ms. Bell very often or (more important) very passionately. But I’m getting to it. I’m getting to it.

I do want to discuss a little grammar, however. It came out of the coverage yesterday of Margaret Witt’s case against the US Air Force and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In the decision, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips ruled that Witt should be reinstated as soon as “practicable.” This was not the first time that I have read or heard that word. But I don’t recall ever hearing it outside of a legal context. A friend of mine is having a well drilled on her property, and she doesn’t say, “It will be drilled as soon as practicable.” No one but lawyers and people quoting lawyers use this word! (All right, that’s an overstatement, but if you can’t tell the difference between my considered writing and my rants, then get the hell off my website.)

Being a practical man (Or is it a “practicable man”?), I have never researched the difference between these words because I knew that I didn’t need to use the word “practicable”—unless I became a lawyer or was quoting one. But the day has come for me to end my ignorance—and yours, whether we like it or not. And I do not.

You see, there really isn’t much difference between these words, except that “practicable” doesn’t mean as much as “practical.” “Practical” has a number of definitions: five according to Merriam-Webster and only two (but it should be one) for “practicable.” They both mean, “Capable of being put to use.”

You might think this would be an issue like Enunciating and Annunciate where I think it is high time to ditch the latter word. But alas, it is not so simple. Encarta makes a strong case [Note: no longer available online. -FM] for retaining the two words, and especially their anti-versions: impractical and impracticable:

These two adjectives have overlapping meanings. Both indicate that something can be done, but practical also implies that it is appropriate, sensible, or useful: It is practicable to do the calculation in the traditional way, but far more practical to use a computer. The difference between impracticable and impractical is rather more clear-cut: impracticable means “impossible” and impractical means “not workable when put into practice.”

So there you go. But! If “impracticable” just means “impossible,” why do we need it? In fact, I would say we can get rid of it because its use will not mean “impossible” to 99% of English speakers. Instead, they will just hear “impractical” and think you are a weirdo. So I say we jettison that garbage. For the time, let’s hang on to “practicable” as being the non-judgmental version of “practical.”

It is practicable to maintain the lawn with kitchen shears, but I’m not sure it’s practical.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “Practicable Practical

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