Word of the Week: Practicable


So, [stuff deleted] and how about practicable?

This is a word that has lodged innocently in my brain for years without my ever having asked, Uhm, how is that different from practical, anyway?

I don’t know about you, but I associate practicable with the often-elegantly composed written orders given by latter-day generals. As in:

To Gen. So-and-So, On this date instant, move your troops hither over the river and through the woods thither.

And in my mind, these orders are frequently concluded with the qualification, “if practicable.” As I read along, merrily, I dismissed this as an 19th-century anachronism that 20th-century minds had neatly erased.


Of course, the truth is practicable has a meaning that is usefully distinct from the meaning of practical, though it took me four reference books to iron the whole thing out. For one thing, Webster’s Fourth rather unhelpfully uses practicable in its definition of practical and practical in its definition of practicable, and so I will save all that for a postscript.

Bryan A. Garner’s “Modern American Usage” is much more helpful. He writes that “practicable = capable of being accomplished.” Practical, he adds, is “manifested in practice; capable of being put to good use.”

Even better, the august Theodore M. Bernstein writes in “The Careful Writer,” “practicable is capable of being done; what is practical is what is capable of being done usefully or valuably.”

That is it, in a nutshell.

Speaking of nutshells, H. W. Fowler, in “Modern English Usage,” is worth mentioning if only for this pep talk: “Each word has senses in which there is no fear that the other will be substituted for it.”

He refines the point by saying, soothingly, “safety lies in remembering that practicable means capable of being effected” and practical is “adapted to actual conditions.” And he goes on to add an interesting, and telling, corrective example from an unknown-to-me source related to the long-contentious British involvement in Ireland.

“‘But to plunge into the military question without settling the Government question would not be good sense or practicable policy.’ …The policy was certainly practicable, for it was carried out; [but] the writer [meant] to say it was not suited to the conditions, i.e. practical.”

(Saints, preserve us.)

One famous example, and just as telling for our purposes, from our own history can be found at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you will no doubt remember, it was 1863 and the rebels had embarked on a raid of Maryland and Pennsylvania, for some reason thinking it would all work out.

Overview of the first day of the Battle of Get...

Map of the Gettysburg battlefield on July 1, 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the rebels get to Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, they find the vanguard of the United States Army, the main body of which had skulked alongside the whole time. There is a skirmish, and while it is happening the rebel commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrives, wearing his impossibly tiny shoes. He can see hills in the distance, south of town, and realizes that if there were rebel troops on those hills, the enemy forces in front of him might be compelled to retreat.

So he sends an order to Gen. Richard S. Ewell, directing that he move his army to the top of what was known locally as Cemetery Hill — and here he adds the phrase of the day — “if practicable.”

Now, Gen. Ewell and his men have just arrived, and some sources say they all were worn down by the July heat. Probably they were keen to start frying up scrapple, picking sour apples and dancing a jig.

In any case, Gen. Ewell did nothing.

The United States Army, realizing what Gen. Lee had observed, quickly reinforced Cemetery Hill and the now famous elevations that string along farther to the south — Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. And so what you have is, instead of the rebels defending the hills, the rebels were compelled to attack them. This set the stage for the turning point of the war.

Richard S. Ewell, Confederate general in the A...

Richard S. Ewell, trying to remember where he put his dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is probably hard cheese to point out here that Gen. Ewell’s mistake was to have confused practicable — can Gen. Ewell move his troops to the hill — with practical —  do the actual conditions recommend such an action. Let me tell you, there was many a rye-fueled, slack-jawed argument about that after the war.

It did not help Gen. Ewell’s reputation that just two months earlier he had replaced Gen. Thomas Jackson, who was killed in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gen. Jackson — his nickname was Stonewall, he had only one arm, he spewed Bible verses — was, to say the least, a hard act to follow.

Indeed, referring to Gen. Lee’s “if practicable” order, the historian James M. McPherson writes in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” (Page 654 of the Ballantine Books paperback, 1989)

Had Jackson still lived, he undoubtedly would have found it practicable. But Ewell was not Jackson. Thinking the enemy position too strong, he did not attack — thereby creating one of the controversial “ifs” of Gettysburg that have echoed down the years.


These words are both adjectives. Webster’s Fourth defines practicable as “of, exhibited in, or obtained through practice or action: practical knowledge; usable; workable; useful and sensible: practical proposals; designed for use; utilitarian.” Practical is defined as “that can be done or put into practice; feasible: a practicable plan; that can be used; usable; useful: a practicable tool.”

Updated, July 3:

He was to attack the high ground if it “was practicable.” But then, to add to the confusion, Lee reiterated his previous order not to bring on a general engagement until the rest of the army had arrived. This contradiction put Ewell in a dilemma.

via General Ewells Dilemma – NYTimes.com.