Legal 'Dispositive' Enters Common 'Par'lance

Rob Kyff on

Two dispatches from the Word Front . . .

-- Snowy Disposition: at the height of a recent blizzard, a reporter asked Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy whether he would impose a travel ban if neighboring Rhode Island did so. "That would not be dispositive of our final decision," Malloy replied.

Now, I know it's important to "ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive and ee-lim-in-ate the negative," especially in a time of crisis, but Malloy's esoteric term left me "messing with Mr. In-Between."

In fact, Malloy, a former lawyer, was accurately using a legal term that has been slyly slithering into common parlance.

In legal contexts, "dispose" means "to settle a matter." So the adjective "dispositive" means "capable of deciding a matter, determinative," as in, "The court considered the eyewitness testimony to be dispositive, so it dismissed the case."

But, like Malloy, more and more people have been using "dispositive" as a general term to describe any deciding factor.

Last November, for instance, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that any Republican who challenged Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination would be wise to avoid attacking the president on the Russian scandals, "absent something dispositive from Robert Mueller."

-- Speaking of Common 'Par'lance: "Women's golf season ends after subpar performance at NCAA regional." This headline, which appeared last May on the website of UCLA's student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, brought reader Jim Nelson of Los Angeles up short.

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So he took out his nine iron and chipped this hot potato onto my green: "Does this mean they didn't play well, or that they shot below par but were still eliminated from the tournament?"

I checked. In fact, the Bruins' team score in the three-round tournament was 881, which was 17 strokes OVER par.

In golf, of course, "par" bears a specific meaning: the normal number of strokes it takes a good player to complete a hole or course. So shooting below par (or subpar) is indeed desirable.

But, because "par" also bears the general meaning "an amount considered to be the average or the norm," people often use "subpar" in non-golf contexts to mean "below average."

Sportswriters who cover golf do occasionally use "subpar" in its positive, low-score sense when they refer to "subpar rounds" and "subpar holes." But, to prevent confusion, they usually avoid the more general term "subpar performance."


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2018 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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