Optimum / optimal

This is the place to post questions and discussions on usage and style. The members of the Wordwizard Clubhouse will also often be able to help you to formulate that difficult letter.
Post Reply

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Jan 03, 2002 9:39 am

Most dictionaries recognize the existence of the adjective "optimal", but also recognize the use of "optimum" as an adjective. Personally, I'm allergic to "optimal", and don't remember seeing or hearing it to any extent before I left the UK many years ago. It strikes me that I'm now seeing it more often, particularly in US publications. Do the gurus here reckon it's gaining currency and that I'll just have to come to terms with it or do you still prefer "optimum" as the adjective? Please leave aside a discussion of whether anyone who uses either word more than once in any marketing text should be strung up with piano wire.

Phil, 21 August, 2004
Submitted by Phil White (Munich - Germany)
Post actions:
Signature: Topic imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 9:53 am

Thinking further, the same issue arises with "minimum/minimal" and "maximum/maximal". Oddly, my dislike of "minimal" is not quite as strong as my dislike of "maximal" or "optimal".
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 10:08 am

I’ve never thought about this one before and whatever I did with it was one of those things that is on automatic pilot. I actually had to test myself to see what I would say and I ended up using ‘optimum’ as the noun and ‘optimal’ as the adjective – but don’t ask me why. I did check several dictionaries and they all confirmed what you said that ‘optimum’ can be used as both noun and adjective, but ‘optimal’ only as an adjective. And none gave any special guidance as to which was preferred where. Out of curiosity, I did some search around and this is what I came up with:
______________________________________________

Both ‘optimum’ and ‘optimal’ are relatively new words in the English language – very surprising. I would have guessed that they were much older [‘Optimism’ appeared in mid-18th century after first being coined by the French in 1737 as ‘optimisme,’ a term for the doctrine of German philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz, 1646-1716, and based on the Latin ‘optimum; The verb ‘optimize’ appeared in 1844).

‘Optimum’ first appeared in print as a noun in 1848 and was as an adjective in 1885. Optimal made its first appearance as an adjective in 1890. My first question was, why was ‘optimal’ introduced at all if ‘optimum’ already served as an adjective – who needed it? Answer ‘shit happens!’ (<:) But since it was introduced to be the adjective and appears to have become widely used, logic would seem to say that we should drop the use of optimum as an adjective just for ‘tidiness’ so as not to have two forms of the same word meaning the same thing. Another (weak) argument for having only ‘optimal’ as the adjective is that then the adverb ‘optimally’ would follow naturally from the adjective as do many other adjective/adverb pairs (loud/loudly, slow/slowly, gradual/gradually, etc.) – and ‘optimumly,’ for some reason, never jelled!

Well, I think my above suggestion would be the logical course of action, but it appears, at least from ‘Garner’s Modern American Usage,’ that that’s not the way things are going:

“‘Optimum’ is the noun, but ‘optimal’ is—optimally speaking–the better adjective. Hence the phrase should be ‘optimal advantage,’ not ‘optimum advantage.’ The reason is that there is no need for ‘optimal’ if we use ‘optimum’ both as a noun and as an adjective. It [‘optimal’] serves the principal of ‘differentiation’ to distinguish between two forms. But the adjectival ‘optimum’ seems to be edging out ‘optimal’ in practice, and the latter may one day be just a needless variant.”

‘Minimum’ and ‘minimal’ seem to follow a similar pattern as optimum/optimal and mostly overlap, but in one sense there is a distinction. ‘Minimal’ may or may not be absolute, but ‘minimum’ should be. Thus “The minimum age to serve as president in the U.S. is 35’ is absolute. However, in ‘He put in a minimal effort’ (‘minimum effort’ would be ‘no effort at all’!) and ‘He won with minimal opposition,’ ‘minimal’ is relative’ (and in this instance I think, but am not certain, that most would say ‘minimal’ and not ‘minimum’). But, we often also say ‘a minimum amount of effort’ and in this instance minimum seems to be winning out as the adjective. Garner notes that “more and more frequently ‘maximum’ (like ‘minimum’) acts as its own adjective.” Incidentally, it seems that ‘maximal,’ has come to be used as ‘the greatest possible under the circumstances’ and may or may not refer to an absolute maximum – “For maximal results, you need calcium and exercise.” However, the ‘maximum’ results humanly possible under controlled laboratory conditions may be far higher than any ‘maximal’ results ‘little old us’ might ever achieve.

In conclusion, for the way the abovementioned words are now actually being used, we in the grammatical usage game use the technical jargon, “it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other!” (<:)

<1848 “It is here that the cultivation of the former [sc. the mulberry] attains its maximum of extent and its OPTIMUM of quality.”—“Debow’s Review,’ April, page 396> [noun]

<1881 “This may be briefly designated as the OPTIMUM [German, ‘Optimum’] of food.”—‘Animal Life’ translation by K. Semper, ii. page 43> [noun]

<1885 “The minimum or zero point is the point at which the performance is just possible; the OPTIMUM point, at which it is carried on with the greatest activity.”—‘Lectures on the Physiology of Plant’ by S. H. Vines, page276> [adjective]

<1896 “Experience alone can tell us the OPTIMUM temperature for a given kind of micro-organism.”—‘A System of Medicine’ by T. C. Allbutt, I. page 513> [adjective]

<1890 Nature 20 Nov. 70/1 (Rep. Brit. Assoc.) “There is probably an OPTIMAL temperature, or one at which the process proceeds most rapidly or most favourably.”—‘Nature’ (Report of the British Association of Nature), 20 November, page 10/1>

<1900 “The greatest happiness in life can be obtained only if all the instincts—that of workmanship included—can be maintained at a certain OPTIMAL intensity.”—‘Comparative Physiology of the Brain,’ by J. L. Loeb, xv. page 223>

<1935 “OPTIMAL environmental conditions . . . vary considerably with different individuals.”—‘Dynamic Theory of Personality’ by Adams & Zener, translated by K. Lewin, ii, page 110>

<1987 “There are OPTIMAL levels of information flow for proper functioning of the human brain.”—‘Our Own Worst Enemy’ (1988) by N. F. Dixon, xii, page 201>

<2004 “Many of the most brilliant of the tropical birds live in the upper canopy of the rain forest, where they are bathed in abundant, full-spectrum light and can show themselves to OPTIMAL effect.”—New York Times,’ 20 July>

(Oxford English Dictionary, Garner’s Modern American Usage)

Ken – August 21, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 10:22 am

Ken,

Thanks for your thoughts. Just for fun, I tried putting all six words into Google and was amazed by the number of hits. What became clear was that scientific writers mix the forms with gay abandon, even in the same sentence. I did come across one discussion which maintained virtually the opposite to what you say with respect to "minimal/minimum".

Here is the relevant section:

"My author also wanted chapter and verse on the difference between "minimum/minimal" and "maximum/maximal". I searched the _Shorter OED_, Webster, Collins, Longman, _Cambridge International Dictionary of English_ _Oxford Dictionary for Scientific Writers and Editors_, _Longman Dictionary of Scientific Usage_and _Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture_. Most don't even mention the possible existence of "maximal" and "minimal". The _Cambridge International Dictionary of English_ gives both, but doesn't explain how they differ from the "-um" forms. It was the _Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture_ that defined the two terms (and confirmed the meaning I'd attributed to them from my reading of science texts). "Maximal" means "the greatest possible" and "minimal" means "the smallest possible". So in this case, the "-um" and "-al" forms enable a useful distinction to be made; for example, between the smallest value measured in a particular experiment and the smallest value that is hypothetically possible.

Bearing this subtle "-um" versus "-al" distinction in mind and looking again at "optimum/al" as used by scientists and as defined in the _Shorter OED_ it's possible to discern a subtle distinction between "optimal" = the theoretically possible best and "optimum" = the best possible under the circumstances. But I think this is a case of the editor having to ask the author, before wading in to change anything. Given the interchangeability op "optimum/al" in common speech (see Burchfield), it's not worth making too much of a fuss."

http://www.electriceditors.net/edline/vol2/2-37.txt

I can't see any substantiation for a distinction (either in your sense - Garner's - or in the sense above) between the two forms from the way people are actually using them.

It seems that I can happily continue to nurture my aversion to the "-al" forms.

Phil, 22 August, 2004
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 10:37 am

Phil, A danger lurks in trusting and quoting other people’s research especially if it is a blogger on some website (e.g. electriceditors.net). And the danger is that they may have screwed things up and misquoted a source plus other possible transgressions. If one checks the ‘Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,’ for example, it is clear that your blogger might have been playing loose with the facts (perhaps to make a point or perhaps just being careless) because she’s got the reputed “subtle distinction” exactly backwards. What the Shorter OED actually said was the following:

Shorter OED:

OPTIMAL adjective, Best, most favourable, especially under a particular set of circumstances

OPTIMUM adjective, The best, a level condition, etc., regarded as the best.
___________________________

And as soon as I saw that she lost all credibility. In reality, however, the ‘-um’ and the ‘-al,’ as they are used and as they appear in probably 99% of dictionaries, are as synonyms and this whole ‘subtle distinction’ thing is a tempest in a teapot!

Ken – August 22, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 10:51 am

Ken,
Thanks for your sharp-sightedness. As you say, whatever subtle distingtions may be drawn by linguistic pedants like ourselves, in reality they are synonyms.
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Optimum / optimal

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 11:05 am

Don't confuse grand-mum with grand mal though.
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

End of topic.
Post Reply