key, crucial, pivotal

Dear word sommelier: Today @BloombergStyle tweeted, “Key is vague as a modifier. Adjectives such as crucial and pivotal are more precise.” My question is just, “What?”

A valid question. Why is key supposed to be vague? What would make crucial and pivotal more precise? Have I missed something somehow all these years of being a professional word person? Or am I encountering yet another hoary prejudice of which I have heretofore managed to remain innocent? Or what?

Certainly key seems more popular right now as a modifier, especially in business writing (and we know how many language sticklers have a hate-on for business English – not without some justification, assuredly). It’s a nice, short word, and it carries an image of a key that opens a door – perhaps a golden key, something of value, something shiny. You readily read of a key role, a key question, key players, key issues, key elements, key factors, and so on (I’m getting these frequent collocations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The keystone is the most important stone, and when you “set the tone” for something you “set the key.” Plus it’s a short word, two sounds and three letters, an explosion of air from the tongue tight at the palate.

So it’s easy to see why key would be popular, and overuse can dilute effect; we also see it a lot in more workaday terms like keyword. But that doesn’t make the word itself imprecise; it just means that it is sometimes used imprecisely. One may as readily use crucial and pivotal imprecisely. Perhaps @BloombergStyle dislikes it in part because it’s in origin a noun, not a “proper” adjective. I’m also tempted to wonder whether its plain Anglo-Saxon source counts against it.

Crucial certainly seems more dramatic, and if greater drama is what you want then it will be more precise (but if it’s not then it won’t be). The mouth screws up tight and puckers out as you say it, the tongue crushing air against the palate, and you can almost express excruciation just with the sound and vocal gesture. Its sense comes from Latin crucem “cross” with the idea of being at a crossroads, a decision point: something that’s crucial is deciding. Nowadays we would probably view it more as meaning “absolutely necessary” – something you can’t do without, as opposed to being merely important. We may speak of a crucial role, a crucial question, a crucial part, a crucial point, a crucial moment, a crucial factor – notice more singulars than for key: this indicates that crucial signifies greater importance. Key things may be multiple; crucial ones are more likely to be singular.

Pivotal has a clearer image because its original reference is still plain in the word: pivot, a word we got from French and French got from we’re not entirely sure where. This is a tidier word, starting and ending with stops, and with a possibly ambisyllabic /v/ right in the middle – which, in written form, even looks like it could be a pivot. Something that is pivotal is clearly something on which everything turns: a pivotal role (seriously, role is the most common collocation for each of these words in the COCA), a pivotal moment, a pivotal point, a pivotal player, a pivotal figure. Again, singular: pivots always come one at a time.

So key may seem vaguer to @BloombergStyle, but that may just be because it indicates something important but not as important. But that’s not the same thing as vague. It’s not at all precise to say something was hot when it was just warm, for instance.

I wanted more feedback on this, so I asked some of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for their off-the-top-of-the-head evaluation of the differences between these three words, leaving the dictionary on the shelf. Here are some of their responses:

crucial: very very important all by itself.
key:  the most important of a bunch of important ones.
pivotal: similar to key, except the less important concepts surround it; “key” they seem more like they’re in a hierarchy.
—Rosemary Tanner

key = it matters; this is important but not necessarily as much as the following
crucial  = it matters especially, it is critical to (for example) something happening or not happening
pivotal = crucial/critical but using the image of the pivot point, it is the factor/concept/assertion/etc. that could cause a change in direction, taking this path over that path, etc.
—Laura Edlund

“Key” and “crucial” are the most synonymous – both meaning “essential” – but “pivotal” of course also implies a moment of change or a feature that changes the way the entire context can be understood.
—Aaron Dalton

Key: important, but could be one of many. A key concept, another key concept… A key piece of evidence is important, but you wouldn’t lose the case by mucking it up.
Crucial: stronger than key and bordering on unique. An entire case may rest on a crucial piece of evidence.
Pivotal: something that changes the game/situation/direction.
—Paul Cipywnyk

key – one of the most important items
crucial – not to be overlooked, above all others
pivotal – having a bearing on outcome, associated with desired results
—Carolyn Wilker

We see some general trends here, especially as regards the hierarchy of importance and the imagery of pivotal, but on the other hand there’s not complete agreement either. And these are highly literate people who work with words all the time. So consider the effect the choice will have on the average reader (who will most certainly not be looking at a dictionary either): probably a fairly impressionistic one, determined in part by prosodic and phonaesthetic factors and strongly by current patterns of use. (As I’ve said many times, words are known by the company they keep.) I’m not arguing against maintaining certain distinctions of sense, but always be aware of what your readers will be aware of.

And, now, is key less precise? Or is it just more often used imprecisely? It does seem a little milder in tone, but that’s a different matter. I’d say @BloombergStyle is a little off-key here, myself.

3 responses to “key, crucial, pivotal

  1. I’d love to see some examples of key that Bloomberg finds vague. It sounds to me like someone got tired of seeing it all the time, and the reason why they dislike it is beside the point.

  2. I agree. I’ve always seen “pivotal” as indicative of change in some manner, while “crucial” is just a more intense “key”. When is “key” vague? I’m reminded of doors that have many locks on them. Perhaps one is the crucial lock, but all the rest are still, well, key, if you want to go inside.

  3. I find myself replacing “key”” often when I’m editing, and you’ve made me think hard about why. I think it’s mostly in the business usage — or the bureaucratic usage that seems to have spun off from it. The problem for me is not about vagueness, or the fact that it’s a noun; it’s about the pseudo-objective connotation it has acquired in contexts such as “key informant” and “key stakeholder”, where the value judgement behind the application of these terms is implicitly denied.

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