Fast or steep

A reader, Barbara McDonald, wrote a few days ago about the confusion of “precipitous” and “precipitate.” Here is what she had to say (emphasis added):

I have many pet grammar and usage peeves, but one in particular is escalating out of sight… precipitously, one might say. Then, again, one could argue that this entire confusion has been precipitated by the media glomming on to fad words.

I have heard in recent months — on NPR and elsewhere — dozens of misuses of those two words: precipitous and precipitate. Usually the misuse happens when precipitously is used mistakenly for precipitately, perhaps because the latter is more difficult to pronounce.

Am I the only one who speaks back to the radio or TV, saying, “No, no, no. You don’t mean steep; you mean with undue haste.”

Barbara makes a wonderful point. Bryan A. Garner in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” explains the difference between the two words. Precipitate, meaning sudden or hasty, applies to actions, movements or demands. Precipitous, meaning steep like a precipice, applies to physical things, rarely to actions, “except when the metaphor of steepness is apt.” So a “precipitous” decline would be a steep dropoff, and a “precipitate” decline would be a sudden drop.

Thanks to Barbara for raising this issue.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.