Optimum vs. Optimal in Super Bowl Post-mortem

Super Bowl FootballNow that the jubilation — or agony — of Super Bowl 2015 has waned, armchair quarterbacks have lost interest in second-guessing Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll’s decision to call for a pass in the final seconds of the game rather than bulldozing the ball the short distance into the end zone.

The New York Times featured a post-mortem by Justin Wolfers, an economics professor who claims that Coach Carroll’s call was defensible.

I’m far from an expert on football, but I loved that Wolfers used optimal in his description when a majority of folks likely would have chosen optimum.

(Isn’t it amazing that anyone can focus on the words used to describe this high-profile, history-making play rather than the essence of football strategy that made it so? Ah … such is life as a ruthless editor.)

Optimal vs. optimum. What’s the difference?

Optimal is an adjective: the most desirable, most favorable, most effective
The strategy Coach Pete Carroll chose was not considered the optimal choice by many Seahawks fans.
In the football context, your running back may be a better weapon than your quarterback, and so an optimal strategy does not dictate that you use them both with the same probability.
This means that even with a great running back, an optimal strategy sometimes involves passing.

Optimum is a noun: the best condition or amount
Coach Pete Carroll’s call for a pass was as far from optimum as Seahawks fans could imagine.
The pass interception yielded the optimum the Patriots could have hoped for.
The pass interception yielded the optimum, which at that point, many Patriot fans considered out of reach.

Although many sources consider optimal and optimum interchangeable, apparently neither Prof. Wolfers nor the New York Times is among them. Nor am I.

I can’t help but wonder: If optimal and optimum are interchangeable, why do both words exist?

Choosing one word over another because of its precise meaning or nuance separates the polished writer or publication from the rest.

Note: Because of reader interest, the difference between optimum and optimal was revisited in 2017.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)