Thank you all so much for the responses. I appreciate it a great deal.

This question was initially phrased in a way which was determined to be too subjective, so this is an attempt to make this a very clear question with a factual basis, and to which I believe that the answer is, "No."

By "ought to make a careful writer avoid the phrase" I mean that it is considered by at least some usage experts to be problematic. Perhaps they consider it trite. Perhaps they consider it infelicitous wording.


In his essay/review "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage", Harper's Magazine, April, 2001 (also reprinted in expanded form in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays), David Foster Wallace says:

But the really distinctive and ingenious features of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage involve issues of rhetoric and ideology and style, and it is impossible to describe why these issues are important and why Garner's management of them borders on genius without talking about the historical context2 in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics to public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner's usage guide so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established; and in fact there's no way even to begin the whole harrowing polymeric discussion without taking a moment to establish and define the highly colloquial term SNOOT.

...with the footnote:

2 Sorry about this phrase; I hate this phrase, too. This happens to be one of those very rare times when "historical context" is the phrase to use and there is no equivalent phrase that isn't even worse. (I actually tried "lexico-temporal backdrop" in one of the middle drafts, which I think you'll agree is not preferable.)

Is there anything which ought to make a careful writer avoid the phrase "historical context?"

FWIW, Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th edition, does not appear to object to the phrase; in fact, Garner uses it several times (e.g., "Rime still appears for rhyme on rare occasions. But unless it's in a historical or jocular context (or there's an ancient mariner involved), use the modern spelling...").

After others' comments and further consideration, I believe that the answer is "no."

Source: Gardner doesn't seem to have a problem with it; see above. None of you think there is anything wrong with it.

A more definitive answer would at least require a review of all of the major usage guides, I suppose, but I suspect that one of you would have pointed it out if there are usage guides which object to the phrase; for that matter, you would know that the phrase is best avoided when possible.

This is more lit crit than usage, but my best guess is that Wallace is sort of playing a joke on the reader here, by apologizing for the use of a non-widely-objectionable phrase and claiming to assume that the reader (who is probably at least a bit of a language/usage/grammar nerd) also finds it objectionable. The reader, like me, might think, "Geez, I'm a bit of a language/usage geek, but I'm no DFW, but here he is apologizing for using a phrase which I didn't even know was a problem. How come I never knew there was a problem with "historical context," and what is the problem? Because there must be a problem, or Wallace wouldn't apologize and assume the reader objects, too."

TL;DR: I got trolled by DFW.

closed as primarily opinion-based by AmE speaker, Bread, JJJ, Nigel J, tchrist Apr 8 '18 at 14:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    Perhaps Wallace simply doesn't like it? Doesn't necessarily mean there's anything objectively wrong with it. – Nate Eldredge Jun 22 '17 at 3:26
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    What's wrong with orange marmalade? There is no accounting for taste - another cliche one can like or dislike. – Drew Jun 22 '17 at 4:08
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    If I may object to the present consensus, this does not seem like it is strictly a matter of personal preference, otherwise using an inclusive word like "too", or the entire sentence it appears in, does not make much sense. Clearly, the author expects the reader to sympathize with his disdain, which implies some sort of reason for that, otherwise how could he be so confident in the reader's thoughts as to commit them to writing? I doubt he is reading anybody's mind. – Tonepoet Jun 22 '17 at 4:41
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    I didn't know the term is in disfavor. The paragraph, its context, is one sentence, 10 lines long, connected by using 'and' four times. There's fun in it, but it's not the easiest to read. So what makes the author the arbiter of good taste? – Yosef Baskin Jun 22 '17 at 5:11
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    This reddit conversation suggests it has to do with the author's sensitivities to how the term is precisely defined. This college note suggests that people sometimes confuse historical context with causation. Then again, it might be that when people disagree about the historical context of an ancient event, the facts might have been lost to time, leaving mere conjecture about the historical context. – Lawrence Jun 22 '17 at 6:06

It sounds like a personal dislike to me, rather than a grammatical point. (The use of the word "too" in the footnote is confusing, but must have made some kind of sense to him when he wrote it. Unfortunately, it's not clear to anybody else what that sense was.)

Perhaps the author is making some kind of statement about how even though every event in the past is a historical event (by definition), only some are historic events (in other words, important events). So, not only can there be possible confusion between the two words themselves, but to say "historical context" could be considered redundant (and therefore relatively meaningless) when considered literally---because every past event has a historical context.

Still, if that's where he was coming from, and he didn't want to mention history in that sense, a possibly better phrasing would have been something like "talking about the social and cultural context of the time in which ADMAU appears . . ."

But, unless the author answers this, it remains speculation. Grammatically speaking, there is nothing wrong with "historical context"---so, if it is wrong (per the author), it's wrong for reasons that are unknown to us.

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