Word Court

Adversarial animal

Madversarial. My perspective is that the correct transformation of the noun adversary into an adjective is to form adversative and not adversarial. I note that only adversative is found in most dictionaries, but both words are found in most computer spell-checking functions, and adversarial has found its way into widespread use. My secretary's perspective is that word selection should be based on efficient communication skills, even if the word is grammatically suspect. I disagree. Which is the correct word?

Andrew Käser

Even two thirds of the way through the twentieth century adversarial was nowhere to be found in dictionaries; the earliest citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1970. But now, judging from recent U.S. newspaper articles in the Nexis database, it is used hundreds of times as often as adversative. (In fact, these days adversative seems to come up almost exclusively in stories about southern military academies. The Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle, for example, recently mentioned "the adversative training and Spartan living conditions at The Citadel.") This would probably not be the case if everybody literate still read Latin, for we'd all be familiar with the Latin form adversativus; and adversarial, though its -ial ending also derives from Latin, would strike us as a chimerical creature.

Hardly anyone does read Latin anymore, however, and the chimeras swooping through our language are legion -- not only such well-domesticated ones as bureaucracy, pacifist, and speedometer (about all of which H. W. Fowler sputtered a bit, calling them "hybrid derivatives") but also younger, wilder ones such as Iran-contra-gate and the Teflon President,and R2D2, and ibuprofen and Advil and Motrin -- these last being an odd-looking trio of synonyms if ever there was one. It's not grammar that adversarial is assailing but purity of etymology, and our language is so polyglot generally that I can't summon up much indignation about the fact that adversative has -- let's face it -- lost out to adversarial.


Ctransparent? My impression is that it is used with two opposite meanings. Among engineers and other technical types it seems to mean that the inner workings of something are invisible to the user, whereas among the politically inclined it seems to mean that the inner workings are fully visible to the public. For example, in Envisioning Information, Edward R. Tufte used the word as a synonym for "undetectable" when he wrote, "By giving the focus over to data rather than data-containers, these design strategies are transparent and self-effacing in character. Designs so good that they are invisible." But in The Economist the word meant "fully visible": "The best solution [to campaign finance scandals] is not to restrict political donations or spending, but to make them transparent. Every penny a party receives should be made public and its source named."

Frances Moore

Come to think of it, clear has the same peculiarity: "Those sliding glass doors are so clear that I walked right into one -- it was invisible!" "What you mean is perfectly clear to everyone -- it's obvious!" The possible ambiguity is worth keeping in mind when using either word in a context where it won't be, well, clear.

Ehim having that job," "I wonder what he thought of us going," "I appreciate you doing that."

Judith L. Anderson


Are we excited about him or about his having the job? Words ending in -ing are either gerunds, which function as nouns, or present participles, which can modify nouns. The trick with sentences like your examples is to decide which of these a given -ing word ought to be. Surely in this case we're excited about the having of the job and therefore that word should be a gerund and the pronoun should be a modifier for it -- that is, not him but the possessive his.

Similar-looking instances can be conceptually different. In "I was so excited to see him working again," the point is less that we're excited to see the working than that we're excited to see him in that situation. Your second and third examples could be on this pattern -- or perhaps they're on the other one. They are awkward as is, though, aren't they? Which brings us to the general rule: treat the -ing word as a gerund and make the other noun possessive unless there's a reason to think and do otherwise.

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Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by Josef Gast

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Word Court; Volume 283, No. 1; page 104.