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Weekend language-related geekiness
Monday, April 16, 2007   8:32 PM

A friend of mine taught me a new word this weekend: coppicing, the process of encouraging, managing, and harvesting shoots from a tree stump.

(The process by which shoots grow from a stump or the base of a plant — something all of us have seen before — is known as suckering.)

Also this weekend, I had to teach someone the distinction between immoral and amoral.

The blowback from semantic confusion sucks. Put John Q. Poindexter on a T-shirt saying that, and I'd buy it.

Common Errors in English is brief on the amoral/immoral distinction:

"Amoral" is a rather technical word meaning "unrelated to morality." When you mean to denounce someone's behavior, call it "immoral."

For my part, I've been using the The Columbia Guide to Standard American English distinction:

Amoral (the first syllable rhymes with day), means "above, beyond, or apart from moral consideration," and "neither moral nor immoral." Immoral means "not in conformity with the moral code of behavior, not moral."

Because I'm for the most part an idealistic shoot-self-in-foot deontologist, I'd be offended if someone seriously called me amoral. And although I've applied the term jocularly to some of my more consequentialist friends, there are apparently enough people out there confused by the difference between immoral and amoral, or unaware that there is any difference, that both words are probably best avoided when you're not upbraiding someone.

Unless you want to do some preaching on the behalf of your personal definitions, as I did above.

For those of us crafting Standard Edited English (American), outside of quotes and editorials, I'd apply the same standard to amoral that the AP recommends for fundamentalist (under "religious affiliations"): don't use the word unless a group applies the word to itself.

Nine times out of ten, you can/should probably recast the sentence with the non-offensive secular, which (for most people, I would guess) implies a lack of religious orientation rather than the absence of moral considerations.

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