Thursday, March 18, 2010


It's probably after the fact as far as usage is concerned, but may I protest about the use of 'intent' for 'intention'?  As in:  'He chased his dog with the intent of taking it home' instead of '. . . with the intention of taking it home.'

I am pontificating here, and doing so even without proper research (like looking the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary).  But here goes.  'Intent' is an adjective, as in 'She was intent upon ruining our fun'.  It gets turned into an adverb in the usual way, and the adverb reveals the meaning: 'She studied intently'.  'Intent' is a slightly odd adjective in that it requires a complement.  Usually, you cannot be intent without being intent on something.  Hence it can't be used attributively: you can't say 'She is an intent person' because this would be incomplete.  -- Or perhaps you can, meaning that she is to an unusual degree intent on things that she takes up.  But it is surely odd to say 'She is an intent on ruining our fun person'.  

'Intention' is, of course, a noun, and refers to the purpose of an action.

So how did 'intent' come to be used for 'intention'?  One natural, but false, theory is that since 'She was intent on spoiling our fun' means the same as 'She had the intention of spoiling our fun', 'intent' replaced 'intention' in the second.  As I said, this is wrong: the two sentences are not equivalent.   For when you say 'She was intent on . . . ', you don't merely mean that she had the intention, but that she displayed a certain focus and concentration on it.  That's what is revealed by the adverbial transformation to 'intently'.

I think that the confusion came in with the legalism 'with intent'.  I think this is properly used when a course of action has a point of focus, or when everything somebody did was focused on a single point.  'With intent' naturally takes the complement 'to', which says what that focus was.  Thus, 'She drove with intent to break the speed record' suggests that everything she did while driving was directed to this aim.  But then some people slipped into using it where the weaker "with the intention to" or "with the intention of" would have been more appropriate.  Thus, "She drove to Toronto with the intention of saving money" does not properly suggest that all of her driving-related actions were aimed at being money-saving -- she may have driven uneconomically fast -- just that the choice to drive (rather than to fly) were so aimed.

Coming back to 'He chased the dog with the intent to take it home': it suggests that his manner of chasing was particularly well suited to taking the dog home after he caught it.  But surely this is not right.  So maybe there are circumstances in which it would be right to say '. . . with intent to catch it', but not ' . . . with the intent to take it home'.

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