Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nonimplicit Trust in Reference Works

Please join me on the raft down my stream of semiconsciousness. When we disembark, the tour guide--yours truly--will announce that the point of the cruise is that we should read everything critically, even reference works. Even good reference works.

I've been trying to figure out what Bryan Garner, the author of the usage chapter in the fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, considers acceptable and what he considers unacceptable as understood or implicit wording--for example, as he is quoted in a previous post, "Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit [in the passive voice], the past participle must always appear." I quoted this because I wanted to discuss his use of "inflected." I neglected to point out that the statement is incorrect. Garner doesn't give an example of a passive-voice sentence with the form of to be implicit, so I'll provide one: "The sentence was parsed, the verb conjugated." If I ask you, "Has the sentence been parsed?" and you reply, "It has," you will have said something passive with both the form of to be and the past participle implicit.

I guess. It depends on what Garner is talking about. I thought I might get some insight from the entry on implicit in his The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (ODAUS) (available as part of Oxford Reference Online for those lucky enough to have access to it). Here is the entry:

Implicit, meaning "implied" and functioning as a correlative of explicit, has come to be misused in the sense "complete, unmitigated" <I have implicit trust in her> <I trust her implicitly>. The OED labels this usage both erroneous and obsolete. With its resurgence in recent years, one can still call it erroneous but no longer obsolete--e.g.: "Such implicit [read complete or simply delete implicit] trust heralds a new dawn in married life—until we get the next sex poll, and spouses revert to normal" (Ariz. Republic).

(Entire block quote is as in original, including angle-bracketed and square-bracketed material.)

Two thoughts came to mind when reading this. First, all three of Garner's examples--the two hypothetical ones in angle brackets and the one from Arizona Republic--are the same. They're all about implicit trust. So maybe we're dealing with an idiom here, and it doesn't matter much whether Garner or you or I like it. If you don't like it, don't use it. The second thought that occurred to me was wondering why the OED would say such a ridiculous thing.

What does Garner have to say about idiom? If you search the ODAUS for "idiom," you get thirty-six hits. His actual statement on idioms appears in the entry for illogic:

No serious student believes anymore that grammatical distinctions necessarily reflect logical ones. Our language is full of idioms that defy logic, many of them literary and many colloquial. We should not, for example, fret over the synonymy of fat chance and slim chance. Applying "linguistic logic" to established ways of saying things is a misconceived effort.

To which I can only add "Hear hear," "Huzzah," and "Yep." But why does this not apply to "implicit trust"?

And why would the OED make the very strange and un-OED-like statement that "this usage ['implicit trust'] is…erroneous"? Let's confirm that this is actually the case. Here is the OED's definition 3.a of implicit (since the OED uses boldface, italics, and boldface italics, I'm going to use very large letters for emphasis):

3.a.implicit faith (= eccl. L. fides implicita), faith in spiritual matters, not independently arrived at by the individual, but involved in or subordinate to the general belief of the Church; hence, resting on the authority of another without doubt or inquiry; unquestioning, unreserved, absolute. So implicit belief, confidence, obedience, submission, etc.

So it looks like Garner's statement was erroneous. But it isn't so simple. Definition 3.a is followed, reasonably enough, by definition 3.b:

†b. Hence (erroneously): Absolute, unqualified, unmitigated, as in implicit ignorance. Obs.

Since the dagger means that a definition is obsolete, the OED is being a little redundant here, but that's OK--nothing wrong with driving the point home. The actual problem is that the OED seems to be contradicting itself: it is nonerroneous and nonobsolete to define implicit as "unquestioning, unreserved, absolute" and erroneous and obsolete to define it as "absolute, unqualified, unmitigated." The astute reader will note that these definitions are the same. It looks like the OED was a little careless. It also looks like Garner was, given that he didn't notice the inconsistency. At least, I hope he was being careless--I don't want to think that he noticed the inconsistency but chose to go with the entry that conformed to his preference.

The point is that we even need to read reference works critically.