Not long ago, a columnist said of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he had “deliberately” touched off an Intifada. Sharon’s memorable visit to the Temple Mount some years ago was an “intentional” provocation. David Stein of Chicago asks, “What’s the difference between a deliberate provocation and an intentional provocation?”

Good question. It prompts more cheers for the infinite riches of our English language. We are blessed with a myriad of choices – nouns that sparkle, nouns that clunk, verbs that royally thunder, verbs that softly sigh. English vocabularies offer abundant opportunities to measure meanings by micrometer. In many contexts the distinction between “deliberate” and “intentional” is slim, but it comes down to this: We give more thought to an action that is deliberate than we give to an action that is merely intentional.

Adjectives have weight and pace. A deliberate act is 22 pounds heavier than an intentional act. It is slower by 10 miles an hour and 6 inches larger around the waist. Companion verbs confirm that impression. A golfer aims deliberately for the green. He intentionally (and generously) overlooks his opponent’s fifth putt. In a courthouse, judges deliberate over a ruling. In a sensitive situation, friends intend to be helpful. By their very nature, acts of revenge are intentional acts, but the revenge that is deliberate takes longer. It is also a heap more fun.

Our lovely language abounds with close distinctions. That deliberating judge is expected to be disinterested but not uninterested. If Judge Judy ever comes across as uninterested, she is merely bored out of her mind. More to the point, this eminent jurist is expected to be disinterested – unbiased, free from selfish motive, not personally or emotionally involved.

A trickier distinction separates “sensual” and “sensuous.” If the female in our story is a sexy woman, i.e., one who occasionally enjoys a libidinous tumble in the hay, we could properly say of her – or improperly say – that she is sensual. If our protagonist would rather pass her time in an art museum, she is sensuous. Her pleasures lie in painting, not panting.

Here’s another puzzler: “partly” and “partially.” In The New Republic in March, a columnist who deals in opinions opined that President Bush was “partially right” in saying that senators may be tainted by their close association with lobbyists. The columnist might better have written that Bush was “partly right,” which is more praise than Bush has been getting lately. My advice in this semantic pairing is to stick with “partly” unless we’re talking about bias, prejudice or favoritism. There’s a heap of difference between a judge who has partly heard a case and one who has partially heard the case.

Train of thought: In some contexts, “fatal” and “fateful” get mixed up. We could add “lethal” to the macabre stew. There’s not much of a problem when the adjectives are used in their literal sense. If a person bent on suicide takes a fatal dose or a lethal one, it’s toodle-oo. I suppose the words may take modifiers of degree – almost fatal, nearly lethal – but a cyanide cocktail can’t be very fatal or a little bit lethal. (While we’re at it, let us remark the distinction between “poisonous” and “venomous.” All venoms are poisonous, but not all poisons are venoms.)

When we get away from the literal definition we get into a writer’s fondness for the purple word. Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a fateful decision – momentous, portentous, a grim harbinger of the war to come. An important turning point is probably fateful. It is seldom fatal. Florida’s vote in the 2000 presidential election was literally fateful for Bush; it was figuratively fatal for Gore.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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