Arguing Over 'Arguably'

By Rob Kyff

March 20, 2007 4 min read

Q. What does "arguably" mean? To me, it would mean "able to be argued." However, that doesn't seem to be how it's used. Let's say something is arguably the best in the world. Does that supposedly mean it IS the best — or that this is subject to argument? — Gerri Thomen, Barkhamsted, Conn.

A. That's arguably a good question. Now what did I mean by THAT? The primary meaning of the adverb "arguably" is "able to be argued." So, if you were to say, "Jane is arguably an expert," you'd be saying that a strong case could be made that she's an expert.

But the adjective "arguable" DOES have two opposite meanings: "it can be plausibly or convincingly argued," as in, "It's arguable that Jane is an expert," OR "open to argument, dispute or question," as in "It's arguable whether Jane is an expert."

Unfortunately, the ambiguity of "arguable" has tainted its adverbial sister, "arguably." That's why people sometimes use "arguably" to mean "able to be disputed or questioned." So the statement "Jane is arguably an expert" could mean, "it's debatable whether she's an expert."

What to do?

Desperate situations demand desperate solutions, and here's mine: Don't use "arguably." I issue this edict for two reasons: 1. "arguably" is ambiguous, and 2. "arguably" is a weasel and a hedgehog; it allows people to hedge their bets.

If you're not sure, say, "Jane may be an expert." If you are sure, say, "Jane is an expert." Ditch "arguably."

Q. I'm staying at a friend's house while he's on vacation, and he left me a note that read, "If you need to use the car, it's in the garage." Isn't that sentence illogical? Even if I don't need to use the car, it's still in the garage, right? — Paul Johnson, Minneapolis.

A. You should probably check the garage. For if your friend is as precise with his grammar as he is generous with his possessions, the car may be there only if you need to use it and then miraculously disappear if you don't.

The grammatical error your friend has committed is called the "false conditional." That is, by using "if," he has falsely implied that the car will be in the garage only under the condition that you want to use it.

Creating a false conditional is not a cardinal sin. You knew what your friend meant, right? But he could have worded the sentence more logically: "The car is in the garage, in case you need to use it."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045. To find out more about Rob Kyff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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