The Grammarphobia Blog

Fractious or fractured?

Q: A recent edition of The Hill described President-elect Trump’s relationship with the New York Times as “fractious.” Isn’t “fractured” the right word in this instance?

A: We wouldn’t use either term to describe the President-elect’s complicated relationship with the New York Times, though “fractious” would be better than “fractured” in our opinion.

“Fractious” usually describes a troublesome, unruly, or irritable person or group of people, and it’s often used to characterize cranky or irritable children, according to standard dictionaries.

It’s true that “fractious” is sometimes used in reference to a difficult relationship, and a search of news databases suggests this is becoming more common. But we’d prefer a term without the unruly and childish connotations—perhaps “contentious,” “quarrelsome,” or even “rocky.”

As for the use of “fractured” here, it would describe a broken relationship, not a difficult one. Although the Trump-Times relationship has had its ups and downs, it’s not broken—at least not yet! In fact, the President-elect’s recent meeting with Times editors and reporters seems to have been more of an up than a down in the relationship.

Interestingly, both “fractious” and “fractured” are ultimately derived from the same classical Latin verb, frangĕre (“to break or shatter”), which has also given English such words as “fragile,” “frail,” and “fraction.”

When the adjective “fractured” showed up in the early 1600s, it was used to describe a broken bone. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Surgions Mate, John Woodall’s 1617 reference book for naval surgeons: “Nothing cureth a fractured boane so much as rest.”

The OED‘s next citation, from a poem by William Shenstone written about 1763, uses the term to describe a broken chair: “Behold his chair, whose fractur’d seat infirm / An aged cushion hides.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for “fractured” used to describe a broken relationship, but we’ve found many dating from the late 1960s, including one from a 1972 issue of the Presbyterian Journal about “the healing of the fractured relationship between God and man.”

When “fractious” showed up in the early 1700s, it meant stubborn or unruly. The earliest example in the OED is from A New Voyage Round the World, a 1725 novel that the dictionary attributes to Daniel Defoe, though some scholars question that attribution: “Having had an Account how Mutinous and Fractious they had been.”

The next citation is from The Capuchin, a play written around 1777 by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “The young slut is so headstrong and fractious.”

The OED says the meaning of “fractious” is “now chiefly, cross, fretful, peevish; esp. of children,” and gives this example from The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole, an 1848 novel by the English writer Albert Richard Smith: “Baby would be getting so very fractious.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an examples for “fractious” used to modify “relationship,” though we’ve found a few hundred in books published since the 1950s.

The earliest we’ve seen, from Labor, Free and Slave, a 1955 book by Bernard Mandel, refers to “the complicated and often fractious relationship between the antislavery campaign and the mid-nineteenth-century labor movement.”

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