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I saw the word “sine qua non” in the article of New York Times (October 12) written by Gail Collins under the title, “The Gift of Glib.” The article deals with the big Republican debate held in New Hampshire this week, and the word appears in the following sentence:

9-9-9 is the sine qua non of the (Herman) Cain candidacy. It would scrap the tax code and give us 9 percent corporate, income and national sales taxes. He mentions it every 10 seconds (in the debate).

I was able to find the definition of “sine qua non” in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “something absolutely indispensable or essential” and “Reliability is a sine qua non for success” as a sample of its usage.

I’m interested in how popular or common this word is among native English speakers. I’ve been warned in how-to-write books that abuse of Latin often gives a pedantic tinge and looks odd.

If I use “sine qua non” instead of "essential or basic requirement" in colloquial conversation with native speakers, or even in writing, will I be ridiculed?

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Just as a curiosity: sine qua non is a fairly used expression in Italian. At least, most Italian speakers will understand it. But again, it is not surprising that Latin phrases are more used in Italian than in English. –  nico Oct 13 '11 at 16:43
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As always, it depends on your audience. If you are around smart, literate people, they will understand terms like sine qua non and reductio ad absurdum and bête noire without skipping a beat. But you leave yourself open to resentment and derision if your audience consists solely of οἱ πολλοί. –  Robusto Oct 13 '11 at 19:46
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If it fits into the flow of the sentence, it's ok. If you have to change mental gears (with or without a pause) to say it, you're being pretentious and should ideally knock it off. That's among literate company - one tries to avoid dealing with the proles. –  Optimal Cynic Oct 14 '11 at 5:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

If you are trying to communicate clearly, in general it's best to avoid Latin phrases with some exceptions.

First, common Latin abbreviations (etc., e.g., i.e., et al.) are perfectly fine. Similarly, do not hesitate to use Latin phrases that are so common that they are rarely thought of as being a Latin phrase, e.g., status quo, rigor mortis, and per capita.

Also, do not hesitate to use Latin phrases in contexts where they have precise technical meanings. For example, lawyers and academics will use phrases like de facto, de jure, quid pro quo, a posteriori, and a priori with no potential for misunderstanding among professionals.

In summary, if you did not know the meaning of a specific phrase until recently, it may be likely that many other people do not recognize that phrase so its best to avoid it.

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This answer has it right. This phrase is pretentious simply because it is not common. There is no magic rule; this phrase might be fine one day when it becomes more common, but it's not right now. Likewise, one just has to memorize that phrases like status quo, rigot mortis, and de facto are common enough to be used normally. –  Jeremy Oct 13 '11 at 16:41
    
Jimbob, your comment is correct, in my opinion, until the last paragraph. You use the word "obfuscation" and it makes a nice demonstration of your last paragraph. The word is not as widely known as perhaps it ought to be, but a child or even an adult not knowing the word hardly makes it pretentious - except from the perspective of the ignorant party, who might just as easily have some sort of inferiority complex about the whole thing. –  Ryan Oct 13 '11 at 18:18
    
You are correct, Jimbob, in a general rule that Latin phrases with technical meanings should be used. An earlier comment gives a good general rule to avoid Latin phrases in company unlikely to understand them. To refrain from their use in such circumstances is a courteous thing to do. –  Ryan Oct 13 '11 at 18:20
    
@Ryan - I edited to substitute 'misunderstanding' for 'obfuscation'. I do not think it is a perfect substitution as it wasn't just misunderstanding, but misunderstanding that arose when obscure phrases are used to hide the intended meaning and make something simple seem complicated. Word familiarity is in the eye of the beholder and as a programmer who often talks about obfuscated code, I didn't give the word choice any real thought. –  dr jimbob Oct 13 '11 at 19:16
    
@jimbob - Just so! That's kind of what I was getting at with the last line of my last comment: it is courteous to address one's audience in terms it is likely to understand. I like the word "obfuscated" and, as a technical writer, sometimes look back over my own work and think, "Sheesh! Could I have obfuscated any worse!?" Lol. –  Ryan Oct 20 '11 at 18:40

In almost every case, the only reason for using any Latin expression it to show how smart you are in knowing it. An English equivalent will usually be more effective.

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I'd most definitely agree with Barrie - especially in conversation and all but very formal/legal written contexts. "9-9-9 is the essential element of the (Herman) Cain candidacy" or "9-9-9 is essential to the (Herman) Cain candidacy" would be understood by a much wider audience. "Crucial" could also be used. –  Matt Oct 13 '11 at 9:53
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There are quite a few Latin expressions in everyday use. I suppose you don't count those? The ones that come to mind are mostly those with a very particular meaning. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 13 '11 at 10:00
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De facto is quite useful and replacing it would often require a wordy alternative, and I think it's widely understood. Also, mea culpa, vox pop, in vitro, casus belli. I don't even know what sine qua non means though so I would indeed reject that as pretentious. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 13 '11 at 11:03
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OK, so what's the alternative to sine qua non? –  Marcin Oct 13 '11 at 11:54
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I think each Latin phrase should be judged on its own. You can't sweep them all under the rug of pretentiousness and be done with them. What is more, an expression may sound pretentious in one group but not so in another. // That said, you could even still use a pretentious phrase, as long as it adds something to your text. It may be more precise, or it may be stylistically preferable. Then again, if it looks pretentious to its intended audience, that is not good. Personally, I rarely use sine qua non, only when describing a condition in negotiations that a party is adamant about. –  Cerberus Oct 13 '11 at 13:01

Well, I am not a native speaker but a 'power user' of the language. I have never heard the Latin phrase being used in a colloquial conversation, or outside of print or a literature classroom. I think it does add a pedantic tinge to the conversation. It will sound heavy and false. A simpler phrase like 'absolutely essential' is more helpful.

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I do love Latin very much, and defend its use adamantly. That said, your point about the particular expression "sounding heavy and false" rings true with me. It is too lengthy and uncommon to be used in a genuinely casual way, as de facto might be used. Because it is easily substituted with one or more perfectly accurate English-language equivalents, it probably should be. –  Ryan Oct 13 '11 at 18:24

I use it when it's appropriate, and I think most educated English speakers would. That said, if you use it enough that you feel the need to ask this question, you're probably using it too much.

Using a latin phrase can add an air of emphasis - it in a sense implies that the sine qua non is more essential than the essential element (and of course, both are more important than an essential element).

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This educated English speaker doesn't know its meaning and therefore never uses it. –  Hugo Oct 13 '11 at 12:26
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Good for you. Given that the question is prompted by a quotation from the New York Times, I think it's fair to say that it's a usage understood by a broad swathe of native English speakers who can be bothered to read a news publication. –  Marcin Oct 13 '11 at 12:33
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@Marcin: non sequitur –  horatio Oct 13 '11 at 15:54
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@horatio: Only if you think that newspapers don't strive to be comprehensible. If you think that, you're wrong. –  Marcin Oct 13 '11 at 17:32
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Actually, the Associated Press has a handbook, which I have on my desk at home, that - if I am not mistaken - gives a list of Latin phrases they believe to be current and therefore acceptable for newspaper publication. It would be interesting to see if sine qua non is on the list. –  Ryan Oct 13 '11 at 18:22

This phrase and others in Latin are used mainly by Spanish-speaking lawyers and highly educated persons. Some Latin phrases are very common but most are not common for the average speaker in the street. They require someone that speaks Castilian Spanish.

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I'm not sure why you think knowledge of these phrases requires any knowledge of Spanish. In English-speaking countries the legal, medical, and scientific fields all make use of Latin for jargon, and many Latin phrases such as this one are not unknown to people with a standard education. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 14 '11 at 18:28

I think in certain professions, using Latin terms is common and I have seen "sine qua non" used by educated people without any objection from others.

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Welcome to EL&U. I encourage you to visit the help center for guidance on providing answers; your contribution could be helped with a little more detail— which professions?— as well as further examples and references. –  choster Sep 19 at 14:48

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