31 July 2006

Using the minimal words possible

I've seen several strange uses of minimal recently and so I went to the experts to clear up the issue -- only to find that experts disagree on the usage:

Usage Note: Minimal and minimize come from the Latin adjective minimus, “least, smallest,” and people therefore use minimal to refer to the smallest possible amount, as in The amplifier reduces distortion to the minimal level that can be obtained with present technologies. In recent years, however, people have begun to use minimal more loosely to refer to a small amount, as in If you would just put in a minimal amount of time on your homework, I am sure your grades would improve. Language critics have objected to this usage, but it is fairly common. In an earlier survey, the Usage Panel was asked what minimal meant in the sentence Alcohol has a particularly unpleasant effect on me when I have a minimal amount of food in my stomach. Under the strict interpretation of minimal, this sentence should mean only “Alcohol has an unpleasant effect when I have eaten nothing.” If the looser interpretation is allowed, however, the sentence can also mean “... when I have eaten a bit.” Twenty-nine percent of the Panel held to the strict interpretation (that is, “eaten nothing”); 34 percent said that it could have only the looser meaning (that is, “eaten a bit”); and 37 percent said that it could have either meaning. Thus, 71 percent allowed the looser sense of minimal, so it should be considered acceptable, at least in nontechnical use. ·The verb minimize has undergone a similar extension of meaning. In its strict sense it means “to reduce to the smallest possible level,” but quite often the context requires us to interpret what the smallest possible level might be. Thus when a manager announces that The company wants to minimize the risk of accidents to line workers, we naturally think that the company plans to reduce the risk to the smallest level after considerations of efficiency and cost are taken into account, not that risks are to be reduced to the lowest level regardless of disruptions and cost. People also use minimize more loosely to mean “to make appear to be of little importance; play down,” as in The President tried to minimize the problems posed by the nation's trade imbalance. This sense is well established.

No comments: