Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Word of the day: involve

Bruce Ross-Larson’s Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words (1996) has sixty-odd pages of words and phrases to change, cut, or compare. Those pages have made me ever more conscious of what I write. I was surprised to see involve in those pages, with the terse recommendation “Try to cut”:

The word should seldom replace or be combined with a preposition. The government agencies involved in carrying out should be The government agencies carrying out. The policies involving several departments should be The policies of several departments. If a verb or participle must stand, try to find a more precise word, such as mean, affect, or include.
Ross-Larson offers no further explanation. I began to wonder what’s wrong with involve and whether a recommendation to avoid it could be found elsewhere.

As best I can determine, Sir Ernest Gowers led the charge against involve. The second edition of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), which Gowers revised, warns against it: “This word is overworked as a general-purpose verb that saves the trouble of precise thought.” Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words (1954) gives the clearest reasoning about involve that I can find, tracing the evolution of the word’s meaning (almost certainly with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary):
The meaning of this popular word has been diluted to a point of extreme insipidity. Originally it meant wrap up in something, enfold. Then it acquired the figurative meaning entangle a person in difficulties or embarrassment, and especially implicate in crime. Then it began to lose colour, and to be used as though it meant nothing more than include, contain or imply. It has thus developed a vagueness that makes it the delight of those who dislike the effort of searching for the right word. It is consequently much used, generally where some more specific word would be better and sometimes where it is merely superfluous.
Among Gowers’s examples, all drawn from life:
The additional rent involved will be £l. (Omit involved.)

There are certain amounts of the material available without permit, but the quantities involved are getting less. (Omit involved.)

It has been agreed that the capital cost involved in the installation of the works shall be included (. . . that the capital cost of installing . . .)

lt has been inaccurately reported that anything from eight sheep to eight oxen were roasted at the affair. The facts are that six sheep only were involved. (Involved here seems to be an “elegant variation” for roasted.)

Much labour has been involved in advertising. (Much labour has been expended on advertising.)
Gowers’s closing advice is to save involve “for use where there is a suggestion of entanglement or complication, as we use involved when we say ‘this is a most involved subject.’” For Gowers, the problem with involve is not that its meaning has changed over time; the problem is that the word can too often be cut with no loss of meaning or replaced by a more precise word. As I’ve begun to see, looking at old files and posts. Here are three examples from Orange Crate Art posts, recently revised:
I have no idea what airing an old PBS show might involve in the way of permissions.

I have no idea what permissions might be required to air an old PBS show.

My most vivid Dance Festival memories (P.S. 131, Boro Park, Brooklyn) involve crepe-paper sashes and armbands and a song called "Wind the Bobbin."

My most vivid Dance Festival memories (P.S. 131, Boro Park, Brooklyn): crepe-paper sashes and armbands and a song called "Wind the Bobbin."

Rachel was involved in a group project on Millay and has now read enough of her work to last a lifetime, thank you.

Rachel worked on a group project about Millay and has now read enough of her work to last a lifetime, thank you.
Is it worth taking the time to make these minor adjustments to old posts? Is anyone likely to notice the difference? Yes: me.

More Gowers
Buzz-phrase generator : If and whether : “Rocket surgery” : Thinking and writing

More Ross-Larson
Long and short : That and which

[To insist that a word’s present meaning must be tied to the word’s roots is to fall for the etymological fallacy. Gowers again: “there is a point where it becomes idle pedantry to try to put back into their etymological cages words and phrases that escaped from them many years ago and have settled down firmly elsewhere.” Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans’s A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1956), Roy H. Copperud’s American Usage and Style: A Consensus (1970), and B.A. Phythian’s A Concise Dictionary of Correct English (1979) follow Gowers’s lead. The warning against involve, lightly revised, persists in the most recent edition of The Complete Plain Words , revised by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut (1988). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) says — no surprise — that involve serves well as “a less specific but no less meaningful” choice of words. Want something that saves the trouble of precise thought? Try involve! Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) has no entry for involve, nor does the earlier Garner’s Modern American Usage.]

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