May 25th, 2010 · Categories: Culture, Sports · 3 Comments

Vocabulary lesson: Clinch vs. win

Bob Knight once famously said that if he ever needed a brain transplant, he would choose a sports writer’s brain because it wouldn’t be used much. Sports writers continue to give evidence of the wisdom of Knight’s choice. An article on the USA Today web site reminded me of the inability of many sports writers to distinguish between the words “clinch” and “win”. Writer Kevin Allen gave the following muddled assessment of Philadelphia Flyers center Mike Richards’ performance in their series-ending win over Montreal:

Richards had a goal, two assists and was literally a force from Philadelphia’s first goal to its last in the Flyers’ 4-2 series-clinching win against the Montreal Canadiens.

I don’t mean to pick on Allen; he is just another in a long line of writers who don’t understand that “clinch” and “win” are not synonymous. So herewith a little vocabulary lesson:

“Win” means it’s over. Done. The game/series/season is finished. Before divisional play, for example, baseball teams played 154 games and the team in each league that had recorded the most victories at the end of the season had won the league pennant. Done. No more regular season games. On to the World Series. The Flyers won their playoff series against Montreal, 4 games to 2. Over. No more games in the series. When the Orlando Magic defeated the Atlanta Hawks for the fourth straight time in their best-of-7 series, they won the series 4-0. Finished. No need to play 3 more games.

“Clinch” means it’s not over yet, but the outcome is certain.  For example, in 1985, the Chicago Bears won the NFC Central Division championship and shuffled off to win Super Bowl XX. But long before they won the division at the conclusion of the 16-game season, they clinched it.  In week 11, they defeated the Cowboys 44-0 to run their record to 11-0. That same week, the Lions beat the Vikings to go 6-5. If Chicago went 0-5 in its last 5 games and Detroit won out, both teams would end the regular season with identical records of 11-5. But even in that worst-case scenario, Chicago would own the tie-breaker by finishing 7-1 against division opponents against Detroit’s 5-3 record.  So at the end of week 11, the season was not over; the Bears still had to play 5 more games. But they could not possibly lose the division – they had clinched it with 5 weeks to go.

So here’s a little rule to help sports writers remember: A fixed-length series can be clinched before it is won, but the remaining games will still be played. A best-of series can never be clinched because the series ends when it is won.

Why does this matter?

When words that aren’t synonymous are made to be synonymous, a shade of meaning is lost. In this case, the words properly used clearly convey whether or not there are games remaining to be played. Here’s a simple (and more important) test for selecting a dictionary (print or online): If “infer” is given as a synonym for “imply” (or vice versa), the editors encourage such degradation of the language; go elsewhere.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 11:58 am and is filed under Culture, Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Vocabulary lesson: Clinch vs. win”

  1. Bob Mohorek Says:

    June 9th, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Beautiful post! I couldn’t have explained it better myself. Sports radio
    is guilty of this as well and it is driving me nuts. I had just been complaining
    about this to people.

  2. Grumpy Says:

    June 10th, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks, Bob. I appreciate your coming by.


  3. Featured post | The Curmudgeon's Progress Says:

    March 16th, 2012 at 4:10 am

    […] Featured post from the past: Sports: Vocabulary lesson: Clinch vs. win […]

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