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A 2014 Daily Mail article by Simon Heffer, "The Pedant’s Revolt", contains an interesting assortment of peeves about language (mostly about the meanings of words). I was familar with some of them, but I found the first incredibly surprising, and I've been wondering whether it represents a preexisting prescriptive position or is something that Heffer came up with himself.

ABLE Only living beings are able. To say that ‘this key may be able to open the door’ is wrong. A man may be able to open the door using the key, or the key may unlock the door.

This certainly doesn't seem to describe any real fact about the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says the word able comes from a French or Anglo-Norman word of various spellings and various meanings, including some that apply to inanimate objects:

(of a person) able-bodied, muscular, powerful (second half of the 12th cent. in Anglo-Norman), (of an inanimate object or fact) suitable, fit, appropriate (second half of the 13th cent.), (of a person) competent, expert (end of the 13th cent.), legally capable, entitled, or qualified (end of the 13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman, frequently with reference to ability to inherit; this use is apparently not paralleled in continental French until later (1390 with reference to ability to sue, 1461 with reference to ability to inherit)), (of a ship) seaworthy (c1440 or earlier in Anglo-Norman), (of a person) intelligent, clever (1555)

Part b. of the OED definition of the English word says

Since very late Middle English or early modern English, to be able (to) has been used (with all tenses of to be) as an alternative to or replacement for can and could (see can v.1 II.) in contexts relating to ability and possibility, and is now chiefly so used. In standard English since that period can has lacked an infinitive, present participle, past participle, and gerund; to be able (to) is used to replace this verb in compounds with other auxiliaries (especially supplying a future tense and perfect tenses) and in non-finite constructions.

The OED entry provides the following example from 1551 of "be able" being used with the subject "any Lawe":

1551   T. Wilson Rule of Reason sig. Eiv   Neither can any Lawe be able violentlye to force the inward thought of man.

Regardless, peeves about the meanings of words are often not based on actual usage, so it seems quite possible that somebody came up with this "rule" before Heffer. Does anyone know of an earlier example of somebody insisting that the word able can only refer to "living beings"?

  • I've seen/heard the rule stated once or twice, but have never seen it honored. – Hot Licks Apr 21 '18 at 23:20
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    As with most pedants, the rest of us can ignore him. – GEdgar Apr 21 '18 at 23:39
  • 'Friable' means 'easily crumbled'. It has the ability to be crumbled. Such substances have the attribute of being easily crumbled. I would argue that 'able' is a matter not of cognitive ability but of attribution. I have never heard of the argument otherwise and have not (yet) been able to discover an earlier instance. But I shall keep trying. – Nigel J Apr 21 '18 at 23:51
  • I sort of see the point, but only insofar as the word "do" also doesn't technically apply to inanimate objects. A key doesn't get up and open a door, so the notion that it is able to doesn't make sense. But it's a question of technical precision. In practice, we say "That key unlocks the door"--and the passage you quoted does admit that, strangely enough--then "that key can unlock ..." seems unobjectionable.. – Green Grasso Holm Apr 22 '18 at 0:30
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    I think the closest you're going to get is Sven Yarg's answer here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/222480/… – KarlG Apr 22 '18 at 0:54
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Note : I have not (yet) managed to find an instance, before Heffer, of a quibble being voiced regarding the attribution of 'ability' to a non-living thing but I have managed to find an instance, earlier than Wilson, of 'ability' being attached to a non-living thing.


The land being 'not able' to bear Abraham and Lot.

The earliest example of 'ability' attributed to a non-living thing that I have yet found is a comparison between the Coverdale Version of the bible (1535) and the Wycliffe translation of 1382 of the text regarding Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13:6).

The Textus Receptus Interlinear

The Coverdale is quite happy to say that :

so yt the londe was not able to receaue them, that they might dwell together: for the substaunce of their riches was so greate, that they coude not dwell together. [1535].

But The Wycliffe, 153 years earlier, has not so stated the matter :

and the lond miyte not take hem, that thei schulden dwelle togidre, for the catel of hem was myche, and thei miyten not dwelle in comyn. [1382].

After the Coverdale, the Matthew Bible (1537), The Great Bible (1539) and the King James Authorised (1611 and 1769) all have 'the land was not able to bear them'.


So as far back as 1535 English was content to say that a thing was able - or 'not able' - to perform a function.

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    Thanks! It's helpful to have an example of "able" being used this way in older English texts. This isn't exactly what I was asking about in my question, though--I was actually trying to find out whether the rule about not using "able" to refer to non-living things had been espoused by anyone before Heffer. – herisson Apr 22 '18 at 1:19
  • @sumelic Yes, I am still looking for that. – Nigel J Apr 22 '18 at 2:19
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I do have a certain amount of sympathy with Simon Heffer here.

Saying that a person "is able", or "is unable", suggests (to my mind) that some sort of effort, physical or mental, is involved.

So, since an inanimate object is incapable of making an effort, then "the key is able/unable to unlock the door" is metaphorical. Whether the key unlocks the door or not is a question of fact, not one dependent on ability.

One could though say that "the dog was unable to climb over the fence" - since dogs do make efforts to do such things, sometimes with success, sometimes without.

  • We frequently talk about a table or a rope being 'able' to bear a load. While 'ladenable' would suggest that the action of a person was necessary the "ability" to support something without breaking that objects have has no connection to the act. The pier was able to withstand the force of the tide for years. I do not believe that a table or a pier requires "effort". – Tom22 Apr 22 '18 at 22:14
  • Lockable or foldable require a human to exert will.. not an act of the lock .. it is the verb "to lock" . Now, you might say "The home security system was able to lock down based on a set time" . Still, I think attributing a computer is more like a dog who is able to fetch a bone or able to dig . While limitted a computer, like an animal has some "agency" ... but a table or pier does not. – Tom22 Apr 22 '18 at 22:18
  • @Tom22 I accept that one can think of instances where no human agency is involved. But, in my view, they count as metaphorical uses - a bit like 'my car drinks petrol'. – WS2 Apr 23 '18 at 13:29
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I still do not accept the premise of this question that "This certainly doesn't seem to describe any real fact about the English language." It's true that "able" is not predicated of things that are not persons, though there are some apparent exceptions when "able" is said of an instrument which has replaced an unspecified subject. All the examples given in the earlier discussion here appear to be of this kind, e.g. "The material is able to store the gas at a much higher concentration" probably means "With this material one is able to store the gas at a much higher concentration."

I just searched using the pattern "the hammer is able" and the first four examples returned were cases where "the hammer" refers to an imaginary hammer with human-like properties. (And following were some references to piano hammers.)

Most examples of "able" predicated of things not people seem very peculiar, to me (as here). I am just puzzled by how easily this grammar rule is dismissed as a bugaboo without any real investigation. Is there some general opinion that the rule appears to make no sense, whereas grammar rules are expected to make sense?

  • I might have exaggerated. The statement in my question was based on my own intuitions plus the evidence that I found in dictionaries and in sentences in texts written by other people showing "able" used to refer to non-living things. – herisson Apr 22 '18 at 10:52
  • In any case, I think there's a fairly significant difference between "things that can be conceptualized as agents, and maybe also in some cases instruments" and "living beings". I'd certainly be interested in learning about more facts that support a rule something like this, though. – herisson Apr 22 '18 at 10:56

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