“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.

8 thoughts on ““Reasonable” and Hypallage”

  1. I agree with your conclusion that ‘reasonable satisfaction’ is no more objectionable than ‘reasonable fee’ and ‘reasonable detail’. But analysis of ‘reasonableness’ quickly puts one in a swamp that makes EDGAR look like the Alps.

    Yet ‘reasonable’ is an indispensable vague word that relies on the indispensable legal fiction of the ‘reasonable person, acting reasonably’. Substituting ‘fair’, ‘proper’, or ‘moderate under the circumstances’ just kicks the can down the road.

    The truth is that we put some questions into an established ‘black box’ and treat what comes out as reasonable because we define ‘reasonableness’ as that which comes out of the black box. For lawyers, the black box is often the pen of the judge of the court of last resort.

  2. It seems to me that hypallage presumes the displaced subject is easily identifiable. If I’m understanding the concept correctly, it’s not the comments that are cruel but the person making them. This could create issues in contracts if the displaced subject is the reasonable person and not the easily identifiable party to the contract.

    Or maybe we’re being nerds.

    • No! No! The nerdiness is great but the task before it is overwhelming. Take Bryan Garner’s definition of hypallage. As Ken would say, ‘What the what?’ Collins defines ‘hypallage’ as a [rhetorical] figure of speech in which the natural relations of two words in a statement are interchanged, as in *the fire spread the wind*. Mr Garner, meet Collins Dictionary.

      Then you get to Garner’s examples, including ‘cruel comments’. Collins has the second meaning of cruel as ‘causing pain or suffering’ [as in] *a cruel accident*. By that definition, the comments are themselves literally cruel, though the person making them be as kind as Glinda the Good Witch. No hypallage, no figure of speech at all.

      Similarly, ‘reasonable’ is not hypallagic, just vague (and indispensable!).

        • Whether the two ‘explanations’ are ‘consistent’ is debatable, but Garner’s *definition* and the Visual Thesaurus *definition* quoted by Zimmer are both baffling. The sun begins to rise only when they give examples.

          Hypallages quickly die or freeze. Garner’s ‘angry fight’ is dead, if one admits that ‘angry’ can mean ‘exhibiting a characteristic or creating a mood associated with anger or danger, as by color, sound, force, etc. [as in] *an angry sea*; *the boom of angry guns*’. No transference; the fight is directly angry.

          I squint at many purported hypallages: if ‘distracted driving’, why not ‘attentive driving’? If ‘handicap[ped] parking spot’, why not ‘military pension’? If ‘airsick bag’, why not ‘grocery bag’?

          Bottom line, ‘reasonable’ as applied to fees, notice, and other contractual words is probably not hypallagic and is in any event indispensable, so the fascinating question is moot.

          • My post is about a phenomenon I noticed regarding reasonable. I don’t particularly care whether that phenomenon is called “hypallage” or “puppies”. So I’m not inclined to start exploring whether Ben Zimmer doesn’t understand what hypallage is. Just as well, as I’m not sure that’s a promising undertaking.

          • Agreed. Ben Zimmer’s *explanation* of hypallage was super, nor did I mean to imply otherwise. My point on that score was that the Visual Thesaurus *definition* he cited was baffling. Fortunately, Ben Zimmer went much further than mere abstract definition, to his usual sunrise-like effect.

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