When Opposites Detract

Is "sanction" a contradictanym?

A country ignores the wishes of the United Nations and continues its human rights abuses. Its behavior is “sanctioned.” Meanwhile, a league bowler rolls a 300, but there’s some question as to whether the game is “sanctioned.”

Ah, the wonders of English, where a single word can carry two totally different meetings.

Or not.

In the first instance, the nation’s actions were bad, violating rules set up to prevent the conduct, and thus subject to penalties. In the second, the bowler is hoping that the game was played within the rules and thus subject to awards.

About the only time “sanction” (as a noun, verb, or other word form) is used in a negative sense is in a legal context. The United Nations imposes “sanctions” as a punishment, and legal documents often speak of “sanctioning” an action, also in the sense of imposing a penalty. (Ecclesiastical use also tends to be negative.) But on occasion, “sanction” appears in a positive legal context, as in a judge who writes that a plaintiff’s conduct was “sanctionable,” meaning within the law. Outside of those contexts, “sanction” usually implies approval, as in “a league-sanctioned event.”

If you take a closer look, however, both uses of “sanction” hew to the same overall definition: subject to the law or regulations that govern the conduct. Context is the key, as it is for so many things. “Sanction” in a negative sense is almost always accompanied by other negative words—punishment, actionable, violation. When it’s used in a positive sense, it almost always stands alone, with no qualitative accompaniments.

“Sanction” started its English life meaning simply “law,” neither for or against. As a noun, it quickly assumed a negative mantle, but not until the middle of the past century did the verb become negative. Still, the positive is inferable in the negative: a “sanction” is imposed to encourage adherence to the law.

Most usage guides recognize the Janus-like nature of “sanction” by including definitions of all stripes. The New Oxford American Dictionary says: “In most domestic contexts, sanction means ‘approval, permission’: voters gave the measure their sanction. In foreign affairs, sanction means ‘penalty, deterrent’: international sanctions against the republic go into effect in January.” Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “In phrases such as give sanction to, the word means ‘approval’ – while issue sanctions against shows disapproval.” The Columbia Guide to Standard American English is more restrictive, and perhaps misguided: “The verb means only ‘to give approval or permission, to support,’ although at one time it also meant ‘to punish.’ Today only the noun has both nearly antithetical senses: ‘approval’ and ‘punishment or penalty.’ Both are Standard, and context must distinguish them.”

If you want to confuse your friends (or enemies), say that you “sanction” the use of nonstandard English. Then stand back and watch the fun.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.