The Word Guy: Evaluating the X 'Factor'

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 13 hours ago When a severe ice storm delayed the start of an NFL playoff game in January, a reporter wrote in a game preview, “Weather already has played a factor in the Steelers-Chiefs divisional-round AFC-playoff...

The Word Guy: Evaluating the X 'Factor'

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Updated 13 hours ago

When a severe ice storm delayed the start of an NFL playoff game in January, a reporter wrote in a game preview, “Weather already has played a factor in the Steelers-Chiefs divisional-round AFC-playoff game.”

“Has played a factor”? Something about that phrase sounded odd. But why?

Certainly “has played a role” or “has played a part” would be correct. And “has been a factor” or even “has played AS a factor” would make sense.

But not “played a factor.” Though the definitions of “role” and “factor” do overlap, there's a key difference in their meanings. A “role” is something that someone or something assumes, takes on or plays, while a “factor” is something that someone or something IS, just as something is an influence or a component.

Thus, an actor PLAYS a role in a movie and IS a factor in it, but he would never “play a factor” in it, unless he were portraying the legendary cosmetics mogul Max Factor. (Hey, that's not a bad idea for a bio-pic.)

My maxim: Avoid “plays a factor.”

Meanwhile, another football story placed me face-mask to face-mask with a similar bete noir: the use of “fortuitous” to mean not simply “occurring by chance” (its traditional meaning), but “fortunate.”

“The Giants' need for a cornerback and the Jets' desire for a speedy linebacker,” reported the New York Times, “produced a fortuitous outcome for Eli Apple and Darron Lee, former Ohio State teammates and good friends.”

While the hiring of two “ap-lee”-named buddies by Big Apple teams did occur by chance, the writer is clearly emphasizing that this was a happy event for them. In fact, just a sentence later, he refers to their “good fortune.”

While using “fortuitous” to mean “lucky” instead of “chance” is a common and easily forgiven slip, the specter of redundancy arises when writers use “fortuitous coincidence,” which means “chance chance.”

Consider this sentence from a 2014 political story: “In a fortuitous coincidence for Mr. Brat, many of the most influential media players who helped tip the election in his favor have longstanding ties to Virginia.”

Do I harbor any illusions that my squeamish objections to “plays a factor” or to using “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate” will halt the inexorable tromp of these tropes toward acceptability.

Nope. Given their proliferation, they will surely, and perhaps fortuitously (whatever that means), play a factor in English for decades to come.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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