2

In the context of a task list, there may be tasks that cannot be worked on immediately (for example waiting on material to arrive), while other tasks can have action performed to them right away.

What's a word that for "actionable" tasks which doesn't imply tasks being illegal.

If I can make a to-do list for a lawyer's office and put "Actionable Tasks" as a heading, would that lead to confusion?

  • In the context of a "to-do" list, actionable is M-W's definition #2 (capable of being acted on), where it doesn't imply anything about "illegality". And it's commonly used in that context. – FumbleFingers Jun 27 '18 at 13:18
  • Looking up 'actionable' would show that the word has the sense you require; if you don't want the connotation of the legal sense (though as FF says, it shouldn't really worry you), you could look up synonyms. If you still don't find anything, you have an on-topic question (but research you've done should be included). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 '18 at 14:16
  • I'm probably using the wrong resource, but all related words sound legal-ish. thesaurus.com/browse/actionable – waspinator Jun 27 '18 at 14:33
  • You are using a poor source for synonyms. Look here for alternative words that express the sense you want. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jun 27 '18 at 16:16
2

I think this is an excellent question. As recently as 1993, when Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary appeared, the dictionary noted the existence of only one sense of actionable:

actionable adj. (1591) : subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law — actionably adv

This entry tells us that actionable has been English for more that 400 years and that as of 1993 it had only one widely used meaning—a fairly precise legal meaning.

However, things changed over the next decade, as MBAs across the English-speaking world began referring to prospective steps that management (and others) could take to innovate their processes as "action items"—and as they came to refer to such steps (or items) as "actionable"—that is, "capable of being enacted or acted upon." Ten years after publication of the Tenth Collegiate, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) reports the expanded range of meanings that actionable now possesses:

actionable adj. (1591) 1 : subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law 2 : capable of being acted on {actionable information} — actionably adv

I was working in a publishing house during the years 1995–2003, and I vividly remember the first few times I heard people using actionable in the new way—because it seemed clear to me that they either didn't understand the legal sense of the word or were simply unaware of it.

In part, of course, businesspeople gravitated toward actionable because there wasn't an obvious yet appropriately elevated term to express the idea of "take-action-on-ability." And although an "action item" might be doable or performable or enaactable as readily as it might be "actionable," real-world use of the term extended to some contexts where those alternatives wouldn't work—as in the case of MW's example "actionable information" or the federal spy agency term "actionable intelligence."

In the old days, bureaucrats and businessfolk might have used an adjective such as reliable in place of actionable in those instances—"reliable information" and "reliable intelligence" being of a level of quality that would justify their being acted upon. But for whatever reason, actionable had the right combination of gravitas and vagueness to sweep into mainstream business and government use, and thence into the English-speaking world at large.

Clearly, actionable in the sense of "capable of being acted on" has been in widespread circulation (by which I mean wide enough circulation to persuade the people at Merriam-Webster that they needed to expand their entry for actionable to include the newer meaning) for at least 15 years now—which is a very long time in fruit-fly years. Many people will see no reason to eschew the use of actionable in this sense.

But just as clearly, actionable in the sense of "subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law" has been around for considerably longer. So it isn't at all unreasonable to be concerned that some members of your audience—particularly if it consists of people in a lawyer's office, as you specify in your question—might find the word choice needlessly ambiguous or perplexing.


Fortunately,the specific sense of actionable that you are trying to convey attaches to "actionable task"—which makes it much closer to the "actionable item" meaning I described earlier than to the "actionable information" / "actionable intelligence" sense of the word that Merriam-Webster's definition 2 seems to focus on. As a result, you have recourse to some well-established alternative terms. The one I recommend is performable, meaning (to paraphrase the Eleventh Collegiate) "capable of being carried out."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.