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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trick of the day: subtend

Here is my trick of the day: do not use the word "subtend." It is a real word, but I would not use it when "underlie" would do. It has the smell of the pedantic. It has technical meanings:
1 (of a line, arc, or figure) form (an angle) at a particular point when straight lines from its extremities are joined at that point.
• (of an angle or chord) have bounding lines or points that meet or coincide with those of (a line or arc).
2 Botany (of a bract) extend under (a flower) so as to support or enfold it.
But usually, when used in the humanities it is not a technical term like this. My objection is that it seems technical, as though it had a precise meaning, when it really just means underlie:
• be the cause or basis of (something) : the fundamental issue that underlies the conflict | [as adj. ] ( underlying) the underlying causes of poverty and drug addiction.
Generalizing, this objection pertains to any such pseudo-technical usage. Do not write in a way that makes you a parody of the sort of writing you are doing.


Thomas said...

I guess I have to step up and ask myself whether I was being pedantic when I said that "facts presumably subtend the variety of phenomena". I was directly influenced by a phrase Norman Mailer used at least twice in his writing: "the simple subtends the complex". In Mailer's case, I don't think merely "underlies" would capture his meaning. I use it mainly when the underlying thing "supports or enfolds" (as in botany) the overlying thing, such that an analysis of the "how possibly" of the overlying phenomenon will lead naturally to the underlying structure. I hadn't thought of it before now, but the other two (mathematical) senses also capture the idea that the underlying structure consists of the way the subtending elements "meet or coincide", are "joined at a point". When I say "subtend", I usually mean that the underlying thing is coordinated beneath the supported thing. I'd also say that the craft of scholarship subtends our methods, for example.

That said, I suppose I should feel a little embarrassed about the stylistic influence of Mailer on a blog post that also mentions him. One can almost hear him saying "Nuances subtend the facts."

Jonathan said...

If Mailer does it, maybe I should give you a break. Most of the time it sounds pretentious to my ears.

Thomas said...

Thanks, I'll take it. I think I read somewhere that the editors of Scanlan's monthly published Hunter S. Thompson in part because "Norman Mailer shouldn't be the only one who can say whatever he likes". I suppose the very idea of writing as though there's an important distinction between subtending and underlying is a little pretentious.