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OnWords: Is Unacceptable


At some point we’ve all heard or said that something or other (quote) “is unacceptable.”

“Is unacceptable” is one of those phrases that seep through the language and bubble up seemingly everywhere.

But there are a few things very wrong with it.

“Is unacceptable” glosses over by whose standards acceptability is being measured. When we say it, what we really mean is that we don’t like something, but the passive construction allows us to avoid the fact that we’re the ones doing the unliking.

That also lets us off the hook for having reasons not to like something or for doing anything about it. A blanket declaration of unacceptability puts the onus for fixing things on the person being addressed.

And “is unacceptable” implies and existential state. This allows us to further avoid responsibility by implying that there are larger, vaguer, and maybe even cosmological reasons something isn’t good. Whatever we’re denying is unacceptable by its nature, so we don’t have to have reasons for rejecting it, even if we did. 

So while the phrase “is unacceptable” has become widely accepted, it’s actually a weasel phrase, an attempt by its users to wriggle out of the sticky relational traps of responsibility and reasons why.