Thursday, July 23, 2015

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: mutual

Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day concerns the word mutual :

It’s possible to refer to a couple’s mutual devotion, but not their mutual devotion to their children. The reason is that whatever is “mutual” is reciprocal — it’s directed by each toward the other. E.g.: “So consider the matter a quid pro quo, a mutual exchange of affection between Zereoue and Mountaineer fandom.” Michael Dobie, “More-Famous Amos,” Newsday (N.Y.), 14 Nov. 1997, at A103.

But when the sense is “shared by two or more,” then the word is “common” — not “mutual.” So “friend in common” is preferable to “mutual friend,” although the latter has stuck because of Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (the title to which, everyone forgets, comes from a sentence said by an illiterate character).

Careful writers continue to use “friend in common.”
Today’s tip is well-timed: Elaine and I just started Our Mutual Friend.

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comments: 4

Chris said...

Not sure I agree with that one — and neither does the Oxford Dictionaries website:

"Some traditionalists consider using mutual to mean 'common to two or more people' ( a mutual friend; a mutual interest) to be incorrect, holding that a sense of reciprocity is necessary (mutual respect; mutual need). The use they object to has a long and respectable history, however, being first recorded in Shakespeare and appearing in the writing of Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, and, most famously, as the title of Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend. It is now generally accepted as part of standard English."

Michael Leddy said...

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (which I think of as the anti-Garner) also comes down strongly for the meaning “common,” mentioning Scott and Eliot and quoting from Thackeray, Frost, and others. I’m not sure I agree with the prohibition either. I know that it’s not something I think about when writing. Searching my blog, I see that I once wrote of “mutual friends.” All other mutual s have to do with reciprocity, so maybe I’m secretly thinking about it after all. But I doubt it.

Garner’s Modern American Usage adds a Language-Change rank for “mutual friend.” It’s at Stage 4 (“ubiquitous but . . .”). The full explanation: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots) (e.g.: ‘often’ pronounced ‘OF-tuhn’).” That sounds like “lost cause.”

Diane Schirf said...

I finished Our Mutual Friend earlier this year and didn't get around to writing about it, so I've probably already forgotten it. Well, not really . . . although I have forgotten which character said "our mutual friend."

Michael Leddy said...

I remember your mentioning the novel in a comment, somewhere. I’m waiting for some character to say it.