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Amber Paulen

Usage Note: Flammable

About a month ago I finished the first course toward a certificate in editing. I’m looking forward to the next session, beginning in a month, and in the meantime am keeping up with what I learned by rereading and reading other grammar books.

What I found the most intriguing, after sentences and their grammar, was usage. Oddly I never thought much about usage but have since thought about it often. Making my way through the usage notes in The Chicago Manual of Style provokes gasps and a backwards crawl through my memory to see how wrongly I’ve been writing at times. There’s that sneaky word “irregardless,” that isn’t a word, and words seemingly interchangeable because they sound the same but now set off flashing red lights when I see them.

The wonder about usage is that it’s always changing with the trends of language, and that there are holdouts in language that stand firm in their correct usage despite the trends sweeping them up, refusing to get carried away with common consensus.

I’m also reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (third edition, published 1979). Yesterday I came across this little gem:

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Yes, Professor Strunk!

But my The American Heritage Dictionary, published 1991, has this to say in its brief usage note:

Flammable and inflammable are identical in meaning. Flammable has been adopted by safety authorities for the labeling of combustible materials because the in- of inflammable was understood by some people to mean “not.” Inflammable is nevertheless widely used by writers, even though flammable is well established as a substitute.

And finally The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition, published in 2010:

Flammable was invented as an alternative to the synonymous word inflammable, which some people misunderstood—dangerously—as meaning “not combustible.” Today flammable is the standard term.

After over thirty years inflammable has given up the ghost. Poor Professor Strunk.


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