Jeff and Louis, I had never given this a moments thought, but after looking up ‘factor’ and what the big boys have to say about it, I guess there is something going on, but as far as I am concerned it is too subtle to register very high on my irritation meter.
According to the definition given by dictionaries, ‘factor’ (1816) means “an agent, cause, or influence that contributes to a particular result or situation” as in “Poverty is one of the factors in crime.” Gladstone used it in this way when in 1878 he said “The first factor in making a nation is religion” – a sentiment I am sure our present president would approve of. However, as the “New Fowler’s Modern English Usage’ points out, since the mid-20th century ‘factor’ has become a substitute for such words as ‘circumstance,’ ‘component,’ ‘consideration,’ ‘constituent,’ ‘element,’ ‘event,’ ‘fact.’ or ‘feature.’ “Garner’s Modern American Usage” says that this occurred by what he calls ‘slipshod extension’ so that the word has taken on the sense of ‘a thing to be considered, an event or occurrence’ rather than a cause or influence as it was originally defined. Somehow, I don’t find this at all upsetting and, in fact, find the distinction so fine that in most instances, I can’t even tell the difference – but that may just be my lack of grammatical discrimination.
I suppose that what these sources are saying is that when one says, for example, that the ‘sleaze factor’ of the used car salesman was more than I could bear, the word ‘factor’ here is being used as a substitute for the word ‘element’ and is not being used to mean a ‘cause’ or ‘agent’ that contributes to a particular result, as it was originally intended. More specifically, now that I think about it, the objection being made might be that, for example, in the above sentence “Poverty is one of the factors in crime,’ the ‘factor,’ agent or cause – ‘poverty’ – appears in the same sentence with the particular ‘result or situation’ that is a consequence of that factor – ‘crime.’ But, if one says something like “The poverty factor cannot be ignored” the cause has been divorced from the thing it is supposed to be influencing – ‘crime,’ so that in effect the ‘object’ of the factor has been left out and we have what might be termed a ‘dangling factor.’ (<:) However, I wonder if one said “The poverty factor cannot be ignored as an influence on crime,” whether there would be the same objection. Or perhaps I am completely off-base on exactly what the objection is supposed to be.
I guess I can see how the mathematical meaning of ‘factor’ as a quantity that converts by multiplication may have contributed to the newer usage in, for example, such terms as ‘fudge factor,’ ‘safety factor,’ etc., which may have been a ‘factor’ in the birth of a whole new genre of factors: ‘fear factor,’ ‘finagle factor,’ ‘Jesus factor,’ ‘buzz factor,’ ‘human factor,’ ‘alpha factor,’ ‘Nader factor,’ ‘The O'Reilly Factor," 'feel-good factor (see posting 'feel good'
), 'cheese factor' (see posting
),. . .
However, I still find it difficult to drum up any heartburn over all this (dangling factors or not) and to see any ‘substantial/significant’ difference between ‘an agent, cause, or influence. . . .’ and the so-called ‘slipshod extensions’ usages of ‘an element, component , consideration, . . .’ and perhaps it is the fact that this nuance of difference is so difficult to see that the newer usage has come into its own and is so widely accepted.
However, I am far from certain that I have not gotten this whole thing wrong. If anyone has a clearer view, please feel free to clarify/correct my above ramblings.
Ken G – December 20, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)