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Option

"Britain has an option," John Major has said, "of deciding whether or not to join a single currency..." His Chancellor echoes him: "The sensible thing is for us to make an informed choice at the sensible time." Both say they want the same thing, but with Mr Major it's an option, with Mr Clarke it's a choice. The difference reflects their respective styles. The Latinate option is the language of conference chambers, communiques and official reports; the medieval English choice is more like that of the Tea Room.

Optare meant to choose, and there seemed to be no particular reason why anyone should have needed option when the native word had served perfectly well for a couple of centuries or so, but I suppose the writers who imported it in the 1600s thought it gave a touch of class to their prose. It can only have been that, because at first the two words went on being used without any distinction of meaning. Today they have diverged a little. An option is the thing chosen - staying in, keeping out; one question on the exam paper rather than another; the chance to deal in shares at a favourable price - while the choice is what decides which option to take. The choice is the agent, the option the thing acted upon.

So there is, after all, some point in having the best of both words. There's nothing wrong with option in the right place. It's just that it's a shame to bring it in where it's not wanted, and where choice would have done just as well, as in that sentence from Mr Major. The Romans had to make do with optare for "choose" and also for "wish". We can do better. We can say "I chose to stay at home", leaving opt for other occasions (like opting in or out). Only pompous persons opt to stay at home.

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