There’s a subtle difference between subtly and subtlety

The subtle difference between subtly and subtlety

Independent subtlety v subtly

There’s a subtle difference between subtly and subtlety, sadly the indy100 from the Independent didn’t get it! At least they don’t misspell it as sublety – an un-real estate variation. When mocking Donald Trump be certain your own copy is error-free first.

What is the difference between them? Well, that’s more about grammar than meaning, however, the Middle English word has been around the early 14th century.

Definition & Etymology

Subtle – from the Latin subtilis via Old French sotil, can depict something “so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe” or someone “capable of making fine distinctions”. The indy certainly lacks delicate precision capability!

In its earliest usage, it could also mean “cunning, wise, skilled, adept, crafty”, hence, its use of the Serpent in the book of Genesis, in the Bible.

“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made” – King James Bible, Genesis 3:1

In later English translations, this is translated as “astute, clever, cunning, crafty, shrewd”.

Grammar lesson

Subtle Adjective Describes a noun
Subtly Adverb Modifies a verb or adjective
Subtlety Noun The state of being subtle

“The Jimmy Carter library is subtly mocking Donald Trump”

The headline was eventually corrected after several days but not before some not so subtle mocking from commenter, Bertrand Russell:

Indy100 is not so subtlety mocking Donald Trump.” – Bertrand Russell

Indy100 is not so subtlety mocking English grammar.” – ibid.

Independent subtly before and after

Where have all the sub-editors and proofreaders gone?

It is noticeable on a daily basis, if not on a page by page basis, that proofreading has ceased to be paid for in-house as a skill to save time and money. The immediacy of news and the struggle to keep print media afloat have meant cuts on both counts. Those that did work in the profession have gone freelance and struggle to set rates that are attractive to speed and cost-conscious daily publications.

“Managements had decided it [proofreading] was an expense they could do without, that copy editors could do the proofreader’s job as well as their own. And computers were in the newsroom with Spell Check! Are we going to get proofreaders back? No. And that’s sad. Sloppy writing has become the norm, even though readers don’t like it and complain loudly about it.” – Jerry Peterson

What is inexcusable is the lack of proofreading after the fact, taking days to make corrections. Furthermore, some people don’t even seem to use spell checkers and grammar assistants like Microsoft Word‘s or Grammarly‘s.