Kinds of Consequences

By Maeve Maddox

A reader questions a radio announcer’s odd use of high to quantify the noun consequences:

“For business owners who become the victims of these scams, the consequences can be high.”

Since when have consequences been “high”? “Dire,” maybe. “Serious,” maybe. “Severe,” even. “High”? Never!

The English word consequence derives from a Latin compound that combines cum, “with” and sequi, “to follow after.” (In English words, cum appears as com- and con-.) A consequence is what results from something that has gone before.

I agree with the reader that the appropriate modifier for consequences is one that signifies a degree of seriousness, like dire or grave.

A Google search indicates that the phrase “high consequences” is out there, if only with 35,400 hits. The expression seems to be seeping into general usage from jargon associated with the behavioral sciences.

As jargon, “high consequences” is part of the descriptive term “Low-Probability/High Consequences.” The term, abbreviated LPHC, is applied to events or—in the context of marketing—products that have a low probability of risk, but which nevertheless could have a horrific outcome in the event of failure. An article in the proceedings of a marketing science conference explains the concept this way:

“Low-Probability/High Consequences (LPHC) risk” is present in consumer decisions associated with potentially cataclysmic outcomes such as losing one’s life or job. Air travel is [an] LPHC “product.”

The expression “high consequences” has meaning in this narrow context, but is out of place in the general vocabulary.

Here are examples of the questionable use of low and high to describe consequences:

“Why does evolution make out that there are such high consequences if we don’t pass our genes down?—Question posed on Quora site.

The High Consequences of Low Interest Rates—Headline in The Wall Street Journal.

Actions that show significant differences are those involving Low Consequences, High Consequences, and Suspension.—Book about school testing.

In the first example, the word serious would be more appropriate.

In the second example, the headline writer was probably striving for a neat balance of words (high-low), but a better choice would be: “The Potential Consequences of Low Interest Rates.”

The third example illustrates the tendency of parents and educators to use the word consequences as a euphemism for punishment. The study compares student behavior that resulted in different degrees of punishment: “minor, major, and most severe.”

Educators and others are also guilty of using inappropriate verbs with consequences.

Consequences are results. Consequences follow actions. They may be felt, suffered, or endured, but they are not given, as in these examples from school publications and parent guides:

Consequences will be given in a calm, consistent, brief, immediate and respectful fashion.—Kindergarten brochure, Wisconsin

No consequences will be given if student has an excused tardy.—High school guidelines.

However, children don’t need to know every consequence that might be given. What’s important is that they understand that consequences will be given consistently for certain behaviors.—Parenting book.

In each of these examples, what will be given or withheld is a penalty.

Another odd use of the word consequences making the rounds on the Web is a sentence that originated in the angry outburst of a moderately literate man expressing anger about cyberbully attacks on his daughter: “Consequences will never be the same!” The expression even has a definition in the Urban Dictionary: “to tell someone to stop doing something.”

Interestingly enough in the context of this post, the attacks on the girl were apparently the consequences of her own online behavior.

Bottom line: Consequences may be major, minor, serious, severe, dire, or unexpected. They are felt, experienced, suffered or endured. Except in very limited contexts, they are not high, nor are they given.

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1 Response to “Kinds of Consequences”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with you completely about the misuse of “high” and certain verbs with “consequences”. I would like to point out that “profound consequences” is probably a valid expression.
    Also, there might be some confusion between “high crimes” (felonies) and the invalid expression “high consequences”.
    I have also noticed that when it comes to prepositions, many writers and speakers use the “rule” of “choose one at random”. They have no idea that many time, the preposition is used with idiomatic and precise intents.

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