From the Specific to the General


In a recent news release, the Ontario Securities Commission said this: ‘Most recently, the OSC announced 107 regulatory changes to reduce burden for market participants while maintaining critical investor protections.’

Good initiative, but the use of burden annoys me. The burden or the regulatory burden would be better: a specific thing, not a general state of affairs. A burden is a discrete load one bears, not the sum of all loads.

The load can be figurative, of course, whether it’s the weight of duty, blame, sin, responsibility, proof or securities regulation.


Another word that gets used in the same way is stigma.

This is a borrowing from Greek, meaning the mark of a pointed instrument like a branding iron. The Greek plural stigmata is often used to describe the marks of the nails on the crucified body of Jesus.

In figurative use, a stigma is a mark or brand of disgrace, infamy and the like. We used to talk, for example, of the stigma of illegitimacy.

But stigma is now used as a word to describe the totality of shame-inducing responses to some state of affairs.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto uses stigma in grammatically correct ways, but also less well.

This is good: Challenging the stigma associated with mental illness takes understanding, education and a closer look at our own attitudes toward health.

Less so: Take a positive step toward addressing stigma with this online tutorial.

The sentiment is to be applauded; the usage could be better.


The legal term chattel is often similarly (mis)used. A chattel is an item of movable personal property, with the plural chattels denoting a collection of such stuff.

Perhaps because of a perceived similarity with the collective cattle (and the two words in fact have a shared etymology), chattel sometimes gets used as a general/collective rather than a specific term: ‘Are we just going to be chattel for commerce?’ (New York Times, 24 January 2020, citing a 1997 Federal Trade Commission hearing).

Keep all three of these specific, with definite or indefinite articles attached.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)