The Articulable Dilemma of Proper Usage

I'm a bit of a language junky. I would never claim to be an expert of the English language, but I dabble in it heavily and consider myself aggressively literate. I read and write furiously and often.

Today, I was reviewing a colleague's letter and found the word "articulable" among his prose. Microsoft does not approve of this word, as the little squiggly red line underneath it in MS Word indicated. I've used this word myself in the past, but the potential for any misspelling in our firm's correspondence is so troubling to me that I had no choice but to research further. Is it really a word?

"Articulable" does indeed show up in the most popular dictionaries. One definition is "capable of being articulated." But just because it's a word (like the much-maligned "irregardless"), that doesn't mean it's a good word or the right word to use in the context created by my colleague. So I dug a little further.

First, I Googled it. On the first page of results was a link to a 2007 opinion piece by the late William Safire titled "The Problem With 'Articulable.'" Uh oh. Safire, a longtime political commentator, was also a passionate student of English and wrote a popular column called "On Language" for the New York Times Magazine. If such a haughty authority on wordplay was concerned by "articulable," maybe I should be, too.

In "The Problem With Articulable," Safire writes:

Have you ever heard anyone articulate the adjective articulable? It's a surefire stumble-over word, to be read and not spoken, concocted by lawyers in the past few decades to fit into the narrow space between clear and specific.

Well, I'm a lawyer and so is my colleague, so clearly Safire blamed the right people. But what, really, is so bad with the word? Safire's back was raised by the use of "articulable" in a draft piece of legislation aimed at requiring journalists to reveal their sources only if the government could identify a national security necessity. Safire supported a very strict wording of the bill's language, allowing sources to be "burned" only in the most dire and dangerous of situations. The Department of Justice, as is usual practice for them in THE WAR ON TERRORISM, wanted a much "fuzzier" standard:

In the markup of the Senate bill, the phrase "preventing a specific case of terrorism against the United States" was watered down at Justice's behest to "preventing an act of terrorism"; the loss of the hard, understandable "specific," however, was rebalanced somewhat by modifying the following "or significant harm" to "other significant and articulable harm."

Safire then discusses the various uses of "articulable" in Fourth Amendment judicial precedent and in official FBI policy decrees, and addresses its Latin etymology. He argues against fuzzy legalese in the bill at issue and supports a strict, specific standard for forcing journalists to expose sources. Then he makes a usage recommendation:

As a word maven, I'd rather use articulatable, rhyming with "debatable"; it's a syllable longer but a lot easier to say. To public speakers, as well as to the free flow of information, its benefit would be incalculable.

Safire was certainly a word maven. But other word mavens exist, so I sought advice from another authority. This time I turned to Bryan Garner, the closest thing to William Safire the legal profession has. I own a copy of Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage, and quickly found the entry for "articulable." Does Garner endorse Safire's alternative spelling?

It will likely you surprise you very little that the lawyer-centric authority defends "articulable" as it is. In fact, Garner specifically frowns on Safire's suggested alternative "articulatable" as an "invariably inferior form:"

articulable, not articulatable, is the correct form - e.g.: "The government argues that the stop of the car was either part of an 'extended border search' or a 'Terry stop' based on articulatable [read articulable] suspicion." U.S. v. Weston, 519 F.Supp. 565, 569 (W.D.N.Y. 1981).

And that's all Garner has to say about it.

So, as the thorough and attentive reviewer that I am, what did I decide to do with "articulable" in the body of my colleague's letter? I left it the way it was. After all, the letter was designed to be read, not spoken, so that allays one of Safire's concerns. Further, my colleague and I are in fact lawyers, and though I'm one of the first to decry the over-use of so-called "legalese," the word just seemed correct in the context in which it was presented. "Articulatable," though perhaps easy to say, is more difficult to read. And using something like "specific" or "clear" wouldn't have made as much sense.

And that is what really matters. If a word is actually a word, it makes sense in the context of how it is used, and it's more readable than any alternatives...well, I say go for it. Sorry, Mr. Safire.