“Reasonable” and Hypallage

Linguistics nerdiness follows. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Consider the following, at MSCD 13.551–.52:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines reasonable as follows: “Fair, proper, or moderate under the circumstances.” So determining whether someone has acted reasonably requires an objective inquiry—you consider the circumstances, not the actor’s intent.

That’s the meaning of reasonable as it’s used in, for example, a reasonable fee and in reasonable detail. But it conveys a different meaning in, for example, to the reasonable satisfaction of Acme, in that reasonable doesn’t refer to reasonableness of the satisfaction. Instead, to the reasonable satisfaction of Acme means to the satisfaction of Acme, determined from the perspective of a reasonable person in Acme’s position. It would be clearer to say it that way.

It was this item by Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) on vocabulary.com that prompted me to revisit reasonable. It’s about hypallage.

Hy-what? Hypallage. (Ben say’s it’s “pronounced hy-PAL-uh-jee, rhyming with analogy.” I’ve of course mispronounced it to myself the, oh, three times I’ve encountered the word previously.)

Ben’s article describes hypallage; I’ll leave you to read it. Garner’s Modern American Usage says hypallage is “a figure of speech in which the proper subject is displaced by what would logically be the object (if it were named directly).” His examples include angry fight and cruel comments.

What does that have to do with anything? Well, in the extract from MSCD, in effect I say that to the reasonable satisfaction of Acme is an example of hypallage. But I’ve decided that the other examples cited in the extract (reasonable fee, reasonable detail) are too. That’s because a fee, detail, and satisfaction are no more capable of being reasonable than, say, an accident is capable of being happy.

So I’m inclined to think that the distinction I offer in the extract makes no sense, in that reasonable satisfaction is no more objectionable than reasonable fee and reasonable detail. But I’ll think it over.


About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.