Language Query: Are there Temporary Fixtures?

I wrote a post a few days ago in which I initially used the expression “permanent fixture”. It didn’t look quite right, so I Googled and found it was indeed a common phrase.

But, what is the contrast? Are there temporary fixtures with which we are contrasting permanent fixtures? I ended up editing to “fixtures” alone and wonder whether that shouldn’t become a habit.

Anyone know the origin of the phrase or want to offer an opinion on its redundancy or merit?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

25 thoughts on “Language Query: Are there Temporary Fixtures?”

  1. A real estate distinction, possibly? Curtains are temporary fixtures – the vendor takes them with her unless explicitly agreed otherwise; doors, taps and kitchen cupboards are permanent ones, and by default sold with the walls.

  2. It is indeed redundant, but then people use many redundant expressions: “sudden impulse” “spliced together” “introduce for the first time” “PIN number.” It is easy to find lists of them and hand-wringing over them. My guess is that they arise because people don’t feel as comfortable with many word definitions. For example, when you enter a PIN into a machine, you are typing in a number; when the acronym PIN was introduced, a lot of people probably didn’t understand on a visceral level that it already meant a type of number, so they treated it as an adjective and added the redundant “number.”

    In the case of “permanent fixture,” my suspicion is that it is not obvious to most people that “fixture” actually means permanent, so they add the qualifier to make their intent known.

    1. Redundancy is also often legitimately used for emphasis. Classical example (literally): “Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit.” See also: Pleonasm, hendiadys.

      These cases of redundancy then often creep back into normal, routine language use, too. (See what I did there?)

      As far as language sins go, they do rank relatively low on my list, because they rarely affect clarity negatively.

      P.S.: I take no responsibility for any sins of my own that I may commit by accident while (painfully) editing comments in the textarea field of a web browser. I do apologize for the gratuitous use of an internet meme, though.

  3. I really don’t feel that “fixture” implies such permanence. Can I not affix a Post-It note to a wall?

    Mostly I agree with FuzzyFace & Katja, though I dislike cliches, and admit that it bugs me when someone types their PIN number into an ATM machine.

  4. “Fixture” is a term with legal meaning–generally, a chattel that is transferred with a structure. For example, if you sell your house, you are selling the land, the structure, and things like the hot water boiler that are pretty much bolted onto the house. You are not selling the furniture unless it is an explicit part of the sales contract. Given this, “temporary fixture” can make sense occasionally. Pretend that your hot water heater blew up just before you were about to sell your house. You might buy a cheapie to show the house, knowing that it will likely be replaced by the buyer. Voila! a temporary fixture.

    1. Quite so. And many shelves (a sort of furniture) are screwed in to walls. So it’s a real question, when you sell the house, whether they are included like Ebenezer’s boiler. You can always list everything, but a terminology that sets up a default solution saves time.

    2. The legal test at common law as to whether a chattel became a fixture (and thus part of the land, as Ebenezer S points out) is whether the fixation was done for the better use of the chattel as chattel (the table wobbles so I nail it down) or for the better use of the land as land (so I install a heating system). That is not always a bright line – but it does suggest that some items may be legally fixed and then removed.

      But Sam Chevre below probably has a better line on the reason that ‘permanent fixture’ is not redundant.

      1. Sam’s point does make sense, but for this sub-thread isn’t really on point. As Ebenezer points out, “fixture” is a legal term of art. It is a thing that would otherwise be a chattel, but is in some way so intimately connected with real property that it becomes part of the real property itself.

        Civil law draws this distinction with even greater precision. It has been more years than I care to think about since I stayed up late at night, excitedly reading the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch by torchlight beneath the covers. But IIRC the BGB distinguishes generally between Zubehör (“belongs to”) and Bestandteil (“constituent part”); the former is a thing merely accessory to another thing (the plastic hull you keep your iPhone in), the latter a thing whose essence becomes merged with that of another thing such that the second thing wouldn’t really be the same without it (your iPhone’s battery). This line of thought is developed further with the Verbindung (“connection”) — basically what common lawyers would call a fixture, but taken one step further: the identify of the thing that would otherwise be a chattel (or, to think in civilian terms, something movable) becomes assimilated, Borg-like, into the identity of real property (civile: something immovable) such that it is no longer possible to acquire or hold property in the first thing other than by acquiring or holding property in the second thing.

        You can always list everything, but a terminology that sets up a default solution saves time.

        If James is not a German professor of civil law, he ought to be. With those 16 words, he has captured the spirit of the BGB better than any Kommentator that I have read. (Well; one half of its spirit. The other is, “Organize all of civil law as though it were Linnaean systematics”.)

        English (and Irish and American etc. law) is accretive and asystematic, and its forms are rooted in the magic-words approach of the old common law writs. An instrument doesn’t state merely that it sells a parcel of land. It sells, transfers, bequeaths, makes over, grants, conveys, surrenders, delivers, swaps, sheds, and gets itself shut of the land, presumably because some conveyance in some dismal Norfolk swamp was defeated in the 14th c. because somebody said the wrong thing, or handed the buyer the wrong sort of twig. You throw as many kitchen sinks at the transaction as you can, in the hope that at least one will stick.

        The BGB, by contrast, says: except as set forth herein, you have complete freedom of contract; but, unless your contract specifies otherwise, what it means is as herein set forth. Hence German contracts (other than in the world of cross-border corporate and financial transactions, where the dendrophagous Anglo-American style of documentation has established itself) tend to be, by common-law standards, astonishingly lapidary. Beyond identifying the subjects and object of the transaction at hand, all they need to do is set forth where the parties have agreed that the deal will deviate from default terms.

        I’m not saying one way of doing things is better than another. In fact, I love working on Anglo-American style contracts; they can be intellectual divertissements as playful as the US Securities Act of 1933 itself (a seminal, hugely important piece of legislation, and also a delightful joke). But outside of highly complex transactions in which bespoke documentation might be needed and appropriate, the civil law system does seem to waste a lot less time.

  5. In construction, a temporary fixture is what is used to support/stabilize/position/provide something while the permanent fixture is being built. For example, there are temporary light fixtures. I would use a temporary fixture to support a ceiling fan while I fitted and attached the permanent base.

    1. Me: Aha! “while I fitted and attached the permanent base”.
      I think, nay I know, sirrah, that “you fit (not fitted and attached the permanent base.”
      Hi-ho Silver, and away!

      1st onlooker: “Say, who was that masked man?”
      2nd onlooker: “That was the Lone Pedant”

      1. Ahem. I see your ad-hoc pedantry and raise you a sourced pedantry.

        “Just since the mid-20th century, AmE has witnessed a shift in the past tense and part participle from fitted to fit. Traditionally, fit would have been incorrect, but it began appearing in journalism and even scholarly writing as early as the 1950s. […] This casualism [small caps in the original] appears even in what is generally considered well-edited American journalism, especially where the fit is not a physical attachment but a match […]. Yet where fit is a physical coupling, fitted is the natural choice.” — Bryan A. Garner, “Garner’s Modern American Usage”, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 356.

  6. It is interesting to me that so many response were in regard to objects whereas the first thing in my mind and what I hear the most is a reference to a person and time. “He was a permanent fixture at that bar stool” ” She had become a permanent fixture on the board of directors” . Used in this way fixture doesn’t indicate time,you need the time reference for it to work.

    1. I think in this context the person who is being described as a “fixture” is actually being spoken of as an object.

      Perhaps some of the confusion is that the British use the term “fixture” to refer to “a sporting event arranged to take place on a particular date” (Oxford Dictionary of English). So it’s possible to distinguish between a fixture (Ipswich Town plays Colchester every season) vs a permanent fixture (Leiston FC always plays Norwich Utd every year on a particular date). I think that could be the difference between a “fixture” and a “permanent fixture”. Honestly, not sure but it seems like a very inoffensive change in usage in any event.

  7. I don’t know about fixtures but I’ve heard that there’s nothing so permanent as a temporary solution.

  8. A fixture is a kind of chattel. Like other chattels, fixtures are not assessed as real property (they do not contribute to the value of the real estate).

    Fixtures are attached to real estate, but they can be unattached.

    A permanent fixture cannot be unattached, and so it is assessed as real property (like a house). A permanent fixture is an immovable.

    Property law holds that bowling lanes are fixtures (even though they require a reinforced structure, specially built to support them, and weigh several tons each. The lanes are bolted to the concrete foundation of the building (or they were in 1940) and *could* be removed. That makes them fixtures, and not counted as part of the property.

    Gallonage is how taverns are assessed…

  9. Use all the time in machine shops. A permanent fixture is used for repeat jobs, a temporary fixture for one offs.

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