Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Canceled vs. postponed

"Cancel" was spiking today in online searches at Merriam-Webster, @KoryStamper reported on Twitter, no doubt because of all the weather-related flight cancellations. That reminded me of a minor but interesting usage debate that I covered, possibly in more detail than it deserves, in The Word. Here's the column, from the Sunday Globe of Dec. 11, 2005.

Cancel those reservations

After a natural gas explosion in Lexington last month, the Globe reported that a special Town Meeting had been "canceled and rescheduled for tonight."

Those verbs triggered a pet-peeve alarm in reader Bill Cowie of Reading. "I always thought that once something was canceled, it was gone, deleted, annulled," he e-mailed. "It no longer existed, so it could not be rescheduled." It would be more proper, he said, and more economical too, to use "the perfectly good word postponed."

Sounds like a plausible complaint, and postpone/cancel is just the sort of word pair the usage police are always trying to help us sort out. But plausible or not, the cancel caveat is not, in fact, a usage rule, or even a usage "rule." Unlike persuade vs. convince, or nauseous vs. nauseated, the cancel/postpone distinction seems to have no recorded usage history; even the most persnickety mavens on my reference shelf fail to decree that canceled must mean "gone forever."

In fact, the only comment I've turned up in print comes from my Globe colleague John Powers, who wrote in 1990 that, among numerous other language failings, "Americans say cancel when they mean postpone." That is, they use cancel to mean both "erase" and "reschedule." And so do Canadians and Australians and Britons: Can they all be wrong?

Cowie's argument -- that the canceled thing "no longer exists" -- reminded me of the old conundrum about the farmer's ax: If he has replaced the handle three times and the head twice, does he still have the same ax? (The ancient version of the problem is the paradox of Theseus' ship, maintained and hence replaced, plank by plank, by the Athenians.) The question is one of definition: What is the "it" that we're canceling?

Take the Lexington case, where the Wednesday meeting was scrubbed and replaced by a Thursday meeting with the same agenda. (Not necessarily the "same" meeting-you can't step in the same river twice, and all that.) If your focus was on the meeting as a calendar entry-an obligation on Wednesday night, when you hoped to see a movie-"it" has been canceled, nullified as surely as the credit line on a canceled Visa card. But if you were concerned with content-the recycling rules or the zoning debate-"it" was the meeting itself, and it has been postponed one day.

The issue isn't always subjective; in baseball, as Cowie noted in his e-mail, a postponed game "counts" as the originally scheduled game, whenever it's played, while a canceled game is one that's never played.

But in everyday life, we have no problem using cancel in what you might call the Filofax sense, to mean "clear a spot on the calendar": We don't care whether the event that once occupied that time slot has been rescheduled, abandoned, or left for later consideration. (And considering that cancel is rooted in the Latin cancelli, meaning "crossbars" or "lattice," and that its first meaning in English was "cross out," that seems fair enough.)

Thus, we say:

My flight was canceled. I'll get to Sarasota or San Diego eventually, but not on a flight with that number and departure time. (Even if the same airline delivers you by the same route an hour later, you never call a different-numbered flight a "postponement.")

I canceled my Thursday haircut appointment. I'll call to reschedule when I get back from Sarasota or San Diego. (Nobody thinks that I mean I'm never going back to that stylist.)

Today's classes have been canceled. (The physics midterm and the quiz on Heraclitus are thus postponed. But the day's scheduled meetings are gone forever, even if you cover the same ground later. The emphasis is on the calendar, not the content of classes.)

We're canceling Sunday brunch and postponing your birthday party. (The first event is generic, a spot on the social calendar; the second is a specific observance.)

Yes, cancel sometimes means "cancel with the intention of rescheduling," or even just "postpone" -- and if you have reservations about that casual usage, you're free to avoid it. But if the ambiguity had ever been a source of confusion, the cancel/postpone caution would be a well-known shibboleth. Apparently it hasn't, because it isn't.