-ity and -ness

In the NYT on the 13th, a piece by Patricia Leigh Brown on the pursuit of the Pacific lamprey by Yurok Indians in the Pacific Northwest (where the fish are called eels): in print, “In Pursuit of a Wily, Elusive, Tasty Adversary”; on the website, “Hooking a Slippery Prize Where the Klamath River Meets the Pacific”. Both the fish and the Yuroks would be worthy of attention, but here I’m picking out one very small point, from this passage in the story:

It is not for the faint of heart: Eelers die with some regularity, misjudging the intensity of the currents or being swept out to sea by sneaker waves. “We’ve lost quite a few people down there who wanted that one more eel,” said Dewey Myers, who smokes his catch in his backyard and is known for his exquisitely carved hooks.

[Eeler James] Gensaw said, “It teaches you humbleness and respect for the river.”

Genshaw uses the derived noun humbleness (with the all-purpose nominalizing suffix –ness) rather than humility (with the very restricted and specialiized suffix –ity). There is some tradition for complaining about the choice of -ness when a variant in -ity is available — on the grounds that using the -ness version makes it look like you’re ignorant of the more learnèd variant, that is, makes you look illiterate.

I don’t have a lot of patience with such complaints in general, in part because -ity variants are so often specialized in their semantics: no doubt some people would find the connotations of humility to go beyond mere humbleness. In this particular case, I simply find both variants natural; there’s no reason to insist on One Right Way.

Some side observations.

One, both –ity (notably in the version –osity) and -ness have playful uses, which I’ve taken up on this blog on occasion. These are not what I’m talking about here.

Two, a similar issue arises for -cy vs. –ity, as in recency vs. recentness. Some discussion in this posting

Three, on occasion I’ve argued for -ity over -ness specifically for its specialized sense. See my discussion of phallicity vs. phallicness in this posting.

Four, in a few cases the –ity variant is very specialized indeed, and therefore rare, so that -ness is almost always the way to go. From a posting of mine on precarity vs. precariousness:

Here the competition is between Latinate -ity and native -ness. The suffix -ness is fully productive, but -ity is much more restricted, and tends to be used in new formations to convey some specialized or technical sense not associated with the more general -ness — as in the case at hand. From Wikipedia:

Precarity is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: