Avoiding “arguable”

Arguable” is one of those strange and unclear English words that not only have two different meanings, but two meanings that are the opposite of each other. (Other such words include “sanction”, “literally” and “oversight”. )

Example of the unclear use of “arguable”

The following sentence could have two different interpretations:

 ? It is arguable that complete government access to telephone records is in the public’s interest.

= It can plausibly be argued that complete government access to telephone records is in the public’s interest.

= It is doubtful that complete government access to telephone records is in the public’s interest.

 (This ambiguity doesn’t apply to “arguably”, a hedge with only one usage.)

First meaning of “arguable” = kan worden gesteld; aannemelijk; aantoonbaar

One meaning of “arguable” is “able to be argued or asserted” (Oxford) or “capable of being supported by argument” (Collins).

But the word “arguable” also carries the meaning “can be plausibly or convincingly argued” (Merriam-Webster) or “plausible(Collins). Van Dale suggests aantoonbaar or aanwijsbaar as translations for “arguable”, not verdedigbaar. 

“Arguable” and “defensible” are not synonymous. “Justifiable”, “sustainable” and “defensible” are used for arguments that are stronger than those that are just “arguable”. One example of this is found in the case of Collier v P& M.J. Wright (Holdings) Limited [2007]. In this case, Arden LJ stated this:

In my judgment, the requirements of substantiality or (if different) genuineness would not be met simply by showing that the dispute is arguable. There has to be something to suggest that the assertion is sustainable.

Second meaning of “arguable” = betwistbaar; twijfelachtig; discutabel

“Arguable” could also mean “open to disagreement; not obviously correct” (Oxford), “open to argument, dispute, or question” (Merriam-Webster) or “capable of being disputed; doubtful” (Collins). Example of usage with possible Dutch translation:

Thus, it is arguable whether criteria such as “hazardous materials” should even be included on an ecolabel at all

Het is dan ook discutabel/betwistbaar of criteria als “gevaarlijke stoffen” überhaupt wel op een milieukeur thuishoren.

Recommendation

“Arguable” is best avoided in international legal situations where clarity matters. There is a risk that your reader or listener will think it means the exact opposite of what you intend.

For an example of the incorrect use of “arguable”, and how it was repaired in this case, see this post.

Greg Korbee (June 2015)

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