Similar Words and Fine Distinctions
Proofreading and editing dilemmas
When you’re learning to proofread and copy-edit you will increasingly become aware of similar words which have slightly different meanings.
Impractical and impracticable are two prime culprits which are often confused and misused. Authors often get them wrong and it is the copy-editor’s or proofreader’s job to correct them or query them. But remember that you have to be sure of your ground and you will only intervene if you are totally confident. A query costs nothing, but a change which is wrong can be damaging!
An impractical idea or action is not sensible or realistic. So it may be impractical to get to a town by rail or to wear high heels on a beach. I might make a suggestion about reorganising the office which is impractical because everyone is too busy. It may be impractical to have a wedding at Easter.
Impracticable means something is impossible to carry out often because of a technical difficulty. There is some impediment. So bad weather may prevent our journey; the journey would be impracticable because of fog. Or it may be impracticable because I have no petrol. It may be impracticable to mend my watch or cook a soufflé on an open fire.
The more common word in general use is impractical. So be very careful not to assume that it is the right choice. If in doubt always make a query. Copy-editors and proofreaders are never thanked by publishers and authors for plunging in and having a go!
I remember many years ago proofreading a law report. It involved medical negligence and part of the case hinged on the plaintiff’s blood pressure.
The judgment referred to hypotension (low blood pressure). From all that had gone before I was sure that the plaintiff had high blood pressure and I changed hypotension to hypertension! Wrong! So never be overconfident; if in doubt raise a query. Good job I didn’t go into medicine; errors cost a lot more.
For a fuller discussion of these fascinating words, take a look at the latest edition of Fowler.