illogical unpredictability

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illogical unpredictability

Post by dante » Mon Nov 12, 2012 5:32 pm

The way prefixes are used to form the opposite meaning of adjectives or other words is one area of English where accurate generalizations are not possible for most of the prefixes. Today I was unsure whether to use "irresponsive" or "unresponsive" and was surprised to find out that "irresponsive" is a very rare usage (Firefox dictionary doesn't have it in the database and suggests irresponsible, responsive etc.) Most dictionaries I've checked give the definition of irresponsive. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:The Classic First Edition by Fowler ... &q&f=false(edited by Crystal) notes:
irresponsive, un-. The second is recommended ; see IN- & UN-.
Here is the entry IN&UN from this dictionary:
IN- & UN-. There is often a teasing uncertainty—or incertitude— whether the negative form of a word should be made with in- (including il-, im-, ir-), or with un-. The general principle that un- is English & belongs to English words, & in is Latin & belongs to Latin words, does not take us far. The second part of it, indeed, forbids in wholesome (since wholesome has certainly no Latin about it) & thousands of similar offences ; but then no-one is tempted to go astray in this direction. And the first part, which is asked to solve real problems—whether, for instance, unsanitary or insanitary is right—seldom gives a clear answer ; it forbids undubitable, uneffable, unsuitable, & other such words of which the positive form does not exist as an English word; but about sanitary & the rest it says you may consider them English words & use un-, or Latin words & use in-. Fortunately the number of words about which doubts exist is not large ; for the great majority usage has by this time decided one way or the other.
Fashion has varied : ' The practice in the 16th & 17th e.' says the OED ' was to prefer the form with in-, e.g. inaidable, inarguable, inavailable, but the modern tendency is to restrict in- to words obviously answering to Latin types, & to prefer un- in other cases, as in unavailing, uncertain, undenout'. A few extracts follow exhibiting the more common or important of the doubtful words, each in what is here considered the less desirable form; the number printed after some of these is that of the times that I happen to have seen the form in newspapers while attending to the point:—The amount must be determined not by impractical discussions over restitution (f)./He has selected five of Gissing's novels
for generous, but by no means indiscriminating, praise (ty./We agree with Mr Balfour in thinking it inadvisable to set up any form of Second Chamber which ... (2)./Your modern diplomatist works this supposed incontrollable popular feeling for all it is worth (I)./Whose faded stare silenced his son-in-law by its inexpressive fixity./'Complaints that the present Finance Bills are inacceptable./ TPe can only regret that his ideas are indigested./Every place at which war-ships, completed or incompleted, are lying./Her letters, still extant although inedited. Before a fuller list of doubtful pairs, with recommendations, is attempted, some suggestive contrasts may serve to show the conflicting tendencies that are at work :—unjust but injustice, unable but inability, unquiet but inquietude, uncivil but incivility, show the influence of markedly Latin as opposed to nondescript endings in producing in-. Undigested but indigestible, unanimated but inanimate, undistinguished but indistinguishable, unlettered but illiterate, unlimited but illimitable, unredeemed but irredeemable, unreconciled but irreconcilable, illustrate the aversion of -ed to in-; unceasing but incessant, undiscriminating but indiscriminate, do the same for -ing. Unapproachable but inaccessible, undestroyable but indestructible, undissolvable but indissoluble, unbelievable but inconceivable, unprovable but improbable, bring out well the tendency for in- to be restricted to the forms that are closest to Latin even in the very open minded -ble group (on which more will be found under -ABLE 3) ; & uncertainty but incertitude does the same for nouns. Lastly, unaccountable but insurmountable, unmelodious but inharmonious, are examples of apparent caprice fixed by usage. A list is now given of the words about which doubt is most likely, with a statement of the prefix recommended for each ; the recommendations are sometimes supported by special reasons, but sometimes merely based on a general impression that one form is more likely than the other to prevail:

acceptable un- in- form labelled rare inOED
advisable un- As acceptable
appeasable un Delatinized by -eas
apt un Inept is the Latin
fun- in sense natural
artificial | in in sense natural
un in sense unskilful
completed un un- The only indisputable in ed word is inexperienced
consolable in- Established
controllable un- Much delatinized
decipherable un
digested un- As completed
discriminating un- words in –in abhoring
distinguishable in- Established
edited un- See completed; French inedit has kept the in- form in being
effaceable in- Established
escapable un- Much delatinized
expressive un- Danger of confusion with inexpressible
frequent in- Most -ent words so
practical un un- As acceptable; & confusion w. impracticable
responsive un- Danger of confusion with irresponsible
retentive ir- Most words in re- so
substantial un
supportable in- Established
susceptible in- Most -ible words
Under the entry for -un the authors say:
2. Un-)(in-. When positive adjectives, including participles, are to be converted into negative, it is
usually done by prefixing one of these ; which of the two it should be is a question that most people
can answer without difficulty for most words, the laying down of exhaustive rules would be both
tedious and useless; some of the tendencies have been shown in the article IN- & UN-. One or two
quotations are here given to prove that the wrong decision is sometimes made: The Government let
loose their ' Black & Tans' to deal out summary and indiscriminating punishment/ Olrig, of whose incompleted
labours we spoke lately in these columns./It was inevitable that many men of instable nervous organization
should be included. /Read undiscriminating,uncompleted, & unstable.

All three lapses result from the commonest cause of error, the existence of a familiar allied word beginning
rightly with the prefix that, in the word used, is wrong—here indiscriminate, incomplete, & instability.
One other point is perhaps worth stressing. It is a general truth that, while it is legitimate to
prefix un-, but not in-, to any adjective of whatever form, those negative adjectives in in- that exist
are normally preferred to the corresponding un- forms ; but when an in- (or il- or im- or ir-) adjective has
developed a sense that is something more than the negation of the positive adjective, an un- form is often
used to discharge that function without risk of ambiguity ; immoral having come to mean offending
against morality or wicked, unmoral is called in to mean not moral or outside the sphere of morality
in, & un, -human; in, & un,-artistic ; in, & un, -artificial; in, & un, -sanitary; inept & unapt;
insoluble & unsolvable; im, & un, -material.
The only other source I found on the net referring specifically to the use of irresponsive was this "Standard Handbook For Secretaries" ... p_djvu.txt which notes that both irresponsive and unresponsive are acceptable usages.

Re: illogical unpredictability

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Nov 12, 2012 9:19 pm

Dante, Yes, it is a strange thing about the ir’s and un’s, etc. And as you said ‘irresponsive’ is much more rare (~ 130,000 Google hits at my space-time coordinates) than ‘unresponsive’ (~ 13,000,000 hits). I also noticed that some dictionaries list ‘unresponsible,’ which I have never heard, as a synonym for ‘irresponsible.’ The OED and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary list it, whereas The American Heritage Dictionary and don’t. And here the frequency of usage is reversed. ‘Irresponsible’ gleans about 28,000,000 hits whereas ‘unresponsible’ gets a mere 140,000 hits. Go figure! Myself, I like ‘7-Up, the ‘ircola.’”

Ken – November 12, 2012

Re: illogical unpredictability

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Nov 14, 2012 6:01 pm

Some people lament the loss of understanding in the differing usage of prefixes. For example uninterested and disinterested.

I imagine much of the confusion is due to the mixing up of Latin and Greek prefix usage, as well as modern usage. I've also heard some interesting American variations such as 'misunderestimating' which just confuse the issue.
Don't forget also that companies such as Firefox tend to lean towards American usage, so they can skew the searches.
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

Re: illogical unpredictability

Post by dante » Thu Nov 15, 2012 3:03 pm

We've had two pretty strong earthquakes here, two nights in a row, at the same time and with the earthquake's epicenter at the same location. It struck me as odd that newspapers reported that the epicenters were ON the nearby mountain. I've always thought of the word "epicenter" as an original location of the earthquake deep under the ground. I was wrong, the word "epicenter" means the place on the earth's surface vertical to the hypocenter - "the underground focus point of the earthquake".

Other than this word, the positional meaning of the Greek prefix epi- on, upon, can only be found in a few medical terms like epidermis vs hypodermis ... dermis.htm, but nowhere else in this sense of the word.

The use of Greek hypo- and hyper- and their Latin counterparts sub- and super- is common and quite predictable in English to denote a degree or quality, but their use to indicate position doesn't follow clear pattern.

For example, a lot of words containing the positional meaning of the latin prefix sub- can be found in common usage in English (sometimes in parallel use with its Old and Modern English counterpart "under" ): subterranean, subtext, subtitle etc. On the other hand, the only English words with the positional meaning of the Greek prefix hypo- I could find in dictionaries are hypocenter and hypodermis (although there may be a few more, highly specialized medical words with this prefix).

As far as I know, neither Latin super- or Greek hyper- are used as prefixes denoting position in English, at least not commonly. I know hardly a few words of either Latin or Greek so I cannot confirm whether these prefixes were used in these languages with the positional meaning of above, or whether they are used in modern Italian or Greek.

Since it would be a mammoth task to investigate this matter in more detail, I've only checked Google for the Greek prefix hypo- and found it used in the Greek word for underground: υπόγειος, which translated to Latin letters would be ypogeios ... verter.htm, which obviously indicate that the positional prefix "hypo" is common in Modern Greek.

I don't know why the prefix "sub-" denoting position "under", is used to coin quite a few common words in English while the corresponding Latin (or Greek) prefixes denoting the position "above" (or interpretations close to it, like on a scale ) did not. Whatever the reason English has: sub-zero temperature but not super (or hyper) -zero temperatures, subheading but not superheading, subterranean but not superterranean etc.
This nicely designed website allows searching groups of words satisfying different criteria (starting with ..ending with..etc)

Re: illogical unpredictability

Post by dante » Thu Nov 15, 2012 7:59 pm

Here's a quote from The American Heritage Dictionary ... an&f=false
The prefix sub- can be traced back to the Latin preposition sub, meaning "under." Some words beginning with sub- that came into English from Latin include submerge, suburb, and subvert. When sub- is used to form words in English, it can mean "under" (submarine, subsoil, subway), "subordinate" (subcommittee, subplot, subset), or "less than completely" (subhuman, substandard). Sub- can form compounds by combining with verbs as well as with adjectives and nouns, as in subdivide, sublease, and sublet.
The meaning of sub- in all the words is either literally under or is derived from this meaning. Interestingly, the head word in some sub- coinages (probably the majority of them) denotes the given standard/level: submarine (below the sea surface), subcommittee ( below the organizational level of the committee, or similar), subheading as "section/heading under the main heading" etc. Others are interpreted differently, so "subway" is not glossed as "under the way" , "subtitles" does not mean "under the titles" etc. Subway is interpreted as "the way which is under (the ground)", "subtitles" (as in watching movies) as "titles under the main screen"..

Re: illogical unpredictability

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sat Nov 17, 2012 2:44 am

dante said:

"subtitles" (as in watching movies) as "titles under the main screen"..
.. and this can be a major problem when watching one of those foreign movies and they are just zooming in for the intimate close up and someone moans, in a foreign language moaning kind of way, and BAM!!! .. there is the bloody sub-title blocking out the good bits to tell you someone is "moaning" !!! .. I vote for sur-titles .. or even better suspended titles during scenes crucial to the plot !!! ..

WoZ watching strictly for reseach reasons
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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