Hey! These aren't opposites!

Well, if the last column was late, this one is later still. I've received a few requests for this column, which I am finally putting together, and I will call it the November column. A combination of other work, ill health and travel has resulted in the Grammarian's non-appearance, but I'm back now and hope to catch up a little.

Note in passing the three-pronged approach in the last paragraph. A fourth excuse wouldn't have added to it, but I digress.

What's the difference between inflammable and flammable? That is one of the questions I was asked. No problem, I thought. I'll look in that great standby, Chambers dictionary. This time it didn't prove very helpful. Flammable points you to flame, where the sub-entry for flammable offers the single word definition inflammable. So now you know: there is basically no difference between the two. It would have been pleasing to discover that flammable meant something that was liable to scorch or burn while inflammable meant that it would burst into flames, or something. But, sadly, there seems no difference between them. Just another example of English having a choice of words, I suppose.

What's next? More of the same, of course! Chambers dictionary is an invaluable resource, but it's also a valuable resource. What's the difference between these? Well, if something is valuable, we can say that it has a value or worth, or that it is of high value, while something invaluable is of such high worth that it cannot have any value attached to it. We might say that such a thing is priceless. Don't be confused! Valuelessis something completely different. Satrting with the items of least value, we have valueless, valuable, invaluable. It would be elegant to have another word like invalueless but there is no such thing. So don't confuse valueless with priceless, but don't worry about invaluable and valuable, which are similar, or inflammable and flammable, which are identical.

On a related theme, a correspondent wrote to me about outstanding, an interesting term: Have you considered how the term Outstanding has a positive and negative meaning.

There are surely other words which can mean quite different things depending on the context. For example, there is a quite interesting word in "quite". If we say that something is "quite right" or "quite wrong" we mean that it is completely right or wrong. But if something is "quite quiet" or "quite interesting" than that's probably not so good. If you say that somebody is "quite right", she probably won't complain. If you say someone is "quite interesting", that's not so good.

Finally, has anyone noticed how "a fat chance" and "a slim chance" are the same thing? It's an old internet joke, doing the rounds since nineteen hundred and frozen to death, but someone nearly as pedantic as I am pointed out that it's not quite correct: the event with the slim chance might happen (probably not), but the fat chance event will definitely not occur. So there's a slim chance that the next episode will be online before the start of December.