Feeble or febrile
[ 2006-11-03 10:46 ]

Dear Sir: I'm a college senior. English is my major. In a writing composition, I wrote this line: 'He was febrile and weak.' My writing professor changed it to 'He was feeble and weak'.

He did not explain why. I did not ask. I dared not ask. My professor is stern and severe. I am afraid of him. But I feel he should not have made the change. Feeble or febrile, what's the big deal?

Am I right?


Your letter suggests you're adventurous with words. Your professor could have been more encouraging by explaining why he corrected your copy the way he did.

Your question suggests you do have some doubts over the words, febrile vs. feeble. Hence your professor might indeed have a legit point to make the change.

However, these are only conjectures. You did not provide me with sufficient context to judge. I don't know whether you've used the word "febrile" correctly, or incorrectly.

I have no intention to stand between you and your professor, be he stern or amiable, severe or friendly. There's a great lack of evidence, as it were, to allow me to make a judgment that's fair to either of you. Besides, even if I could determine that you are in fact right, or that your professor is wrong or vice versa, I don't intend to do it. I don't enjoy one-upmanship match-ups - I used to like it, but I no longer do. I'm interested only in finding answers.

You could've disregarded your fear of your teacher and asked directly for an answer. You could have been feeling the fear and still be asking for an answer. Note, I'm not questioning either you or your teacher. I am not questioning your fear - I choose to trust you to have a good reason to be "afraid of him". I am not questioning your teacher - I choose to trust he has a good reason to be "stern" and perhaps sometimes "severe" with his class. I believe the two of you could work it out. You can work out a relationship where you could ask a question despite your fear and in spite of his overbearing veneer (again trusting your description). I believe the two of you can do it. I believe you will.

What I intend to do here is to point out a difference between "febrile" and "feeble" so that you will be able to make up your own mind whether you used it correctly in your composition.

Febrile comes from the Latin word "febris", meaning "fever".

So there! Knowing its origin, you realize that "febrile" is best used in situations indicating a temporary physical ailment of fever. Don't have to take it literally, but you do need to be careful when you decide to use it more liberally.

Someone who is febrile (having a fever) and weak can be very different from someone who is feeble (lacking strength) and weak. The former can be full of nervous excitement in the head while being physically weak and helpless. The latter, well, could just be strength-less in the body by nature.

"He was febrile and weak", by the by, sounds good to me - I don't think many college seniors are capable of conjuring up a line like that. Most college seniors would not even know of this word, much less to be able to use it, such is the general state of English learning in this country.

However, the jury is still out on whether you've used that word correctly. Your professor could've changed "febrile" to "feeble" for one of two reasons - again, I am conjecturing. First, he thought you used the wrong word if you had not indicated in the rest of your composition a situation pertaining to the person possibly having a fever. Second, he tried to rein you in on the use of big words. He preferred that you use simple and modest words.

Either way, I think you've done a great exercise. Learn from it.

I've learned from it. Thank you, Perplex. You are my teacher.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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