January 3, 2014

Effectively keeping an eye on "effectively."

I'm noticing a weaselish use of the word "effectively." It came up twice in 2 days in NYT items that I happened to find myself blogging. Today, I saw David Brooks writing that "Colorado and Washington... have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use." It's like: They're not, but they are. And yesterday, I noticed this: "Mao Zedong... effectively eradicated" prostitution. The previous sentence says that he made "the rehabilitation of prostitutes, whom the Communists saw as victims of capitalist exploitation, a priority," but that didn't stop commenters from suspecting that Mao "effectively eradicated" prostitution by actually eradicating the women. What strange work that word is doing!
The relevant definition in the (unlinkable) OED is: "Virtually, substantially; so far as the result is concerned." The historical examples go back to 1844:
1844   J. Mackintosh Life T. More in Wks. (1846) I. 442   It is not equitable to treat him as effectively..answerable for measures of state.
1884   Harper's Mag. Oct. 796/2   Effectively England is a republic and not a monarchy.
Don't mix up this usage with the more literal meanings: "So as to produce an effect, esp. a desired effect; (emphatically) with powerful effect; decisively, completely," and "So as to produce a (pleasing or remarkable) aesthetic effect." Examples of that meaning:
1878 R. W. Dale Lect. Preaching (ed. 3) vi. 163   If we can preach without reading, we are likely to preach more effectively.
1857 H. Spencer in Fraser's Mag. Oct. 401/2 This tremulousness of voice is very effectively used by some vocalists.
I searched the NYT archive for "effectively" and found plenty of examples of the literal use: "Using Dashes Effectively" ("When do you use a dash? What is an em-dash? What about an en-dash? Is a dash the same as a hyphen?"), "Collecting Taxes, Effectively," etc.

But the weasel-word usage abounds: "After Verbal Fire, Senate Effectively Kills Climate Change Bill," "New Law in Egypt Effectively Bans Street Protests," "4-3 Ruling Effectively Halts Death Penalty in New York," "Pro-Choice Doesn't Force Abortions on Women; U.S. Effectively Decides," etc.

Please be careful reading.

23 comments:

betamax3000 said...

I Effectively Stop Reading Columnists when they Resort to Using "Effectively". I Mean This Literally, Effectively.

betamax3000 said...

I Am a Special Pretzel.

EDH said...

A better word for Brooks in that context: tacitly = implied or indicated (as by an act or by silence) but not actually expressed (tacit consent, tacit admission of guilt).

Matthew Sablan said...

This is literally the worst use of a word.

Matthew Sablan said...

Nooo. I was effectively beaten to the punch.

Beldar said...

The New York Times usage is a separate species. They use "effectively" to mean, "almost completely, but we really wish it were completely because then we could make our point more [other sense] effectively."

Bob Ellison said...

Impactful argument.

Mitch H. said...

"Effectively" means the writer is morally certain of his point but either does not want to be asked to show his work, or hasn't actually done the work in the first place. That ambiguity can cover all sorts of evils.

It can also mean "yes, there are outliers that contradict my point, but the hell with them, they're weird and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. That scheme for which I am acting as a spokesman, of course."

Mitch H. said...

I have used "effectively" in both senses, because I'm as lazy as the next guy, if not moreso.

Clyde said...

Far less annoying than when some talking head says, "We are efforting to get more information." Makes me want to smack 'em right in the pie-hole.

John Lynch said...

Mao effectively eliminated millions of people.

I read the line about prostitutes and took the meaning that he murdered them all.

betamax3000 said...

Re: "We are efforting to get more information."

"Efforting" Should Only Be Used in Instances of Extreme Constipation.

Will Cate said...

It seems most folks misuse that word when they actually mean "essentially"

MadisonMan said...

"Effectively" means the writer is morally certain of his point but either does not want to be asked to show his work, or hasn't actually done the work in the first place.

The work is left as an exercise to the reader.

Mitch H. said...

It's used as such by people who don't believe in essences, Will. They use "effectively" in the artillery sense - a barrage is "effective" because it wounded a quarter of the targeted unit and got the rest of them to keep their heads down and not do what you wanted them to stop doing - advancing, firing at you, keeping watch, whatever. A barrage doesn't need to wipe out a target to be effective, it just needs to accomplish enough to take that target out of the situation.

pduggie said...

Tacitly means they intend it but don't speak of their intent openly.

I was reading something about how if you make a comment that a minority finds offensive and racist, you should really still apologize even if you didn't INTEND to be offensive or racist with your comment. Don't offer the defense that you had good intentions.

You were effectively racist.

Irene said...

This is similar to how the usage of "actually" has changed, I think.

Bob Ellison said...

The fact of the matter is that "effectively" is a tell that the talker or speaker is lazy, stupid, or ignorant. Probably not drunk or high, though; nobody would say "Dude, this bud is effectively awesome!"

cubanbob said...

The NYT is essentially and effectively ( for the chattering classes) a house organ of the DNC. For the rest of us who aren't reality impaired the NYT is essentially albeit ineffective house organ of the DNC.

Jules Aimé said...

I can see the point of the criticism but isn't there some room for using the word when we mean that a person genuinely intends one thing but the actual effect of their action is the exact opposite. Rigoletto, for example, was sincere in his desire to protect his daughter but the sheltered existence he gave her effectively made her easy prey for the Duke.

Sam L. said...

I'm buying the weasel-word thought. There are so many weasels writing, these days.

Ann Althouse said...

It's not a mistake. It's an old and established usage. It's used for weaseling, and it's valuable to notice it and how it's deployed.

The Godfather said...

True that "effectively" can be used in a weaseling way, but it seems to me that it can legitimately be used when the message is that an action had a certain effect, although that was not its ostensible purpose -- as in "Obama has effectively granted legal status to many illegal immigrants". This is in direct contrast to the more common usage: "Obama has administered the immigration laws effectively." Not.

But I disagree with Jules' suggestion, "the sheltered existence he gave her effectively made her easy prey for the Duke." You could leave "effectively" out of that sentence and not change the meaning at all. Or you could replace it with "unintentionally", if you thought your readers needed extra guidance.