Sense and Nonsense

By Maeve Maddox

A reader who heard a doctor describe a patient as “fluent and sensicle” has asked if sensicle is a word.

Sensicle (more often spelled sensical) is a word in the sense that couth is a word, or combobulate or ept.

Humorists have long delighted in making comical back-formations of unpaired words like nonsensical, discombobulate, and inept.

unpaired word: a word that appears to have a related word that does not in fact exist in contemporary usage. Such words may have a prefix or suffix that implies an antonym that replicates the word minus the supposed affix.

Nowadays, when so many native English speakers are lightly educated in the mother tongue, what begins as a witticism may be taken seriously by readers or listeners who lack the information necessary to understand the joke. For example, the following statements are not intended to be funny:

I think the real issue that most people take with Iraq was simply that it wasn’t sensicle. 

Their recommendation to remove that foam piece wasn’t sensicle to me. 

[Sufferers of] Broca’s aphasia can’t produce fluent, sensical speech.

In terms of tax dollars, the Court found that to continue to waste dollars during the appeal wasn’t sensical.

The ban to serve sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants proved [to be a] law that just wasn’t sensical enough to pass.

Nonsensical is a “real” word. It means, “making no sense, absurd.”

The -ical ending also appears in the unwieldy but acceptable adjective for the term common sense: commonsensical.

Used alone, sensical is nonstandard usage.

The frequently seen use of sensical in a medical context may derive from statements like this in texts about aphasia:

In 1874, Carl Wernicke reported patients with a different type of difficulty: fluent but often non-sensical speech.

Hyphenating the word nonsensical contributes to the notion that sensical is detachable. The notion of “non-sensical” is that the speech of the afflicted person “makes no sense.” The noun for that kind of speech is nonsense. The adjective is nonsensical without a hyphen. Another possibility is:

incoherent (adjective): without logical connection or natural sequence of ideas; inconsistent, rambling, disjointed.

Here are suggested corrections for the above examples:

I think the real issue that most people take with Iraq was simply that it wasn’t sensible

Their recommendation to remove that foam piece didn’t make sense to me. 

[Sufferers of] Broca’s aphasia can’t produce fluent, coherent speech.

In terms of tax dollars, the Court found that to continue to waste dollars during the appeal wasn’t reasonable.

The ban to serve sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants proved [to be a] law that just wasn’t practical enough to pass.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


1 Response to “Sense and Nonsense”

  • Roberta B.

    I saw this one yesterday in the WSJ in a stylistic opinion column (Peggy Noonan). I’ve paraphrased: In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the “inevitable” Democratic frontrunner. Then [with the emergence of Barack Obama], she suddenly was “evitable.”

Leave a comment: