The Grammarphobia Blog

A tortured usage?

Q: Paul Krugman, in a recent column in the New York Times, said a proposed immigration bill would create “a path to citizenship so torturous that most immigrants probably won’t even try to legalize themselves.” Shouldn’t he have said “tortuous” instead of “torturous”?

A: As you suggest, the two words are different: “tortuous” means winding and full of turns while “torturous” means excruciatingly painful. My grammar book Woe Is I has this example of the two words in action: “On the tortuous drive through the mountains, Jake developed a torturous headache.”

Now, did Paul Krugman use “torturous” incorrectly? It depends.

If he was trying to say the bill would confuse or intimidate immigrants because of its twists and turns, he should have said “tortuous.” But if he meant the bill’s agonizing legalization process would drive off immigrants, he was right to say “torturous.”

Being correct is one thing, though, and being sensible is something else. I think he should have avoided either word because of the possibility that he’d be misunderstood. Why not use a clearer, less tortuous word, say “confusing” or “agonizing,” depending on the meaning?

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