A Word, Please: Let your elusive sense be your guide

Recently, a very interesting grammar question landed in my email inbox. The writer had to choose between “educational seminar” and “education seminar” and wasn’t sure how.

This is one of those language choices you can make perfectly and with complete confidence every day of your life — as long as you don’t think about it. But stop to ponder a choice like this and suddenly words you’ve used all your life can seem baffling.

Taking inventory of the big picture can be the best place to start: differences between words are not determined by some all-powerful language-governing body or some council of wise old scholars ruling on how we should speak and write. Instead, words and even their dictionary definitions are governed by common usage.

Dictionaries don’t tell us how we should use words, they document how we use them. So when they lay out their definitions for subtly different words like “historic” and “historical,” they’re really just trying to capture that subtle, elusive sense of the words that governs your choices and mine.

I’ll come back to “historic” vs. “historical” in a moment. But for now, the lesson here is that a native speaker’s general sense of a word is often a great guide. Sometimes it’s the best guide.

Dictionaries don’t bother to give definitions for every form of every word. Often, an adjective like “educational” doesn’t have its own separate listing. Instead, it can be found under a root form such as “education.” In these cases, the dictionary doesn’t offer a second definition, stating only that “educational” is the adjective form of “education.”

Don’t assume that, because “education” is a noun and “educational” is an adjective, you must use the adjective form to modify “seminar.” In English, we use nouns as adjectives all the time — a process called “functional variation.” Think of a candy store, a hat box, a mustache comb or an insurance policy and you can see that nouns working as adjectives are as American as apple pie.

So because either a noun or an adjective can modify another noun, we know that “education seminar” and “educational seminar” are both grammatical. That brings us back to the question: how do you choose?

Well, even though adjective forms aren’t necessarily listed in dictionaries, and even though some adjective forms may be custom-made by a user who took a suffix like “al” and tacked it on to a common word like “education” (or “relation” or “notion”), it can’t hurt to first check your dictionary.

“Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate” does not have a separate entry for “educational,” but “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” does. Under this dictionary’s entry for “educational,” we see the definition “giving instruction or information; educating.”

So though we could use “education seminar” for a seminar about education, we see that an “educational seminar” emphasizes that it will teach something. Yes, the meanings overlap, but if you want to differentiate between “education seminar” and “educational seminar,” there’s your line in the sand.

If your dictionary doesn’t help, try a usage guide. For example, “Garner’s Modern American Usage” also mentions that “educational” means “furthering education.”

The choice between “historic” and “historical” is different. They’re both adjectives. Whenever you have two adjectives rooted in the same noun, “history,” it tells you that people tend to give them separate jobs. So it’s not as hard to find help.

A check of the dictionary makes it clear that the words can overlap. But a style guide like the “Chicago Manual” can help you choose how to use them: “’Historic’ refers to what is momentous in history; ‘historical’ refers simply to anything that occurred in the past.”

Hopefully, that’s also where our anxiety about word choices will remain.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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