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This use of the word dispositive in a letter to the editor in my morning paper left me puzzled:

Religious dogma and scripture tend to be grab-bags out of which all kinds of often-contradictory points can be made by [whoever] wants to reach in, and who is to say which of them is dispositive?

I think I know what the letter-writer meant by dispositive, but I can’t help wondering why he didn’t use a more familiar word when addressing a general audience.

Dispositive as an adjective signifies the quality of “directing, controlling, or disposing of something.” In Scottish law, a “dispositive clause” is the clause of conveyance in a deed, by which the disposition of the property is expressed.

In US law, a “dispositive motion” is

a motion asking a for court order that entirely disposes of one or more claims in favor of the moving party without need for further court proceedings. A dispositive motion does not necessarily seek to dispose of the entire lawsuit. The most common types of dispositive motions are the motion to dismiss and the motion for summary judgment. A dispositive motion may also be used to request that an indictment be dismissed or quashed, or for judgment on pleadings. (uslegal.com)

French philosopher Michel Foucault used dispositive (dispositif) as a noun to refer to “the various institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.”

A Google search brings up about 2,210,000 results for “dispositive.” Here is a sampling of usage:

A variety of factors will inform each stage of our inquiry; the factors that we consider today do not constitute an exhaustive list of factors relevant to the mainstreaming issue. Moreover, no single factor is dispositive in all cases.

Though the speech at issue concerned the subject matter of his employment, and was expressed within his office rather than publicly, the Court did not consider either fact dispositive, and noted that employees in either context may receive First Amendment protection. 

The Chinese middle class, I argue, is a dispositive class. 

To grasp the true character of this dispositive (theoretical fragments focused on the formulation of a political problem) and its effects, we must jump a step.

Historicizing Security – Entering the Conspiracy Dispositive

The Bible, and only the Bible, is dispositive for all Christians.

If one cannot in a dispositive way show the non-existence of god, what does the atheists’ position mean?

Dispositive is a useful and meaningful term in specialized contexts, but it seems to me that some speakers may be using dispositive when all they mean is authoritative or conclusive.

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4 thoughts on “Dispositive”

  1. Inflated language indeed. Better to be concise and simple than come
    off as a 19th century pretentious snob.

    36 words down to 24 and even this version can be whittled.

    Religious dogma and scripture permit numerous often-contradictory arguments based on who is opining and who is to say which of them is conclusive?

  2. I agree with the above. Outside of its strictly legal- term of art meaning (which is also not very precise or useful) I have always taken its proper use to mean “Bringing about the settlement of an issue”, so basically, evidence or information that, by itself alone, puts an end to a matter or a question, i.e. “proof” of a certain kind. So, e.g. in a dispute about who said what in a specific conversation, a recording of the conversation would be dispositive. It, alone, settles– disposes of–the issue of who said what. But, the actual definition of the word is so blurry, and exists in so many different realms, it make it unuseful for almost any real communication. Unlike Maeve, I can’t even say I think I know what the letter-writer even meant to say in the initial example. “Authoritative” would seem to make sense in the context used so, as she says, why not use it?

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