To “Mitigate” or “Militate”: Which is Correct? Wordsmithing with Bryan Garner . . .

IMG_0005 Garner 2In his “Usage Tip of the Day” (June 17, 2015), American Etymologist Bryan Garner corrects a common confusion between two similar sounding (and meaning) verbs (long a bugbear of mine):

mitigate (vs). militate

“Mitigate” = to make less severe or intense (Garner writes: “the new drug mitigates the patient’s discomfort”).

“Militate” = to exert a strong influence (Garner writes: “Harry’s conflicting schedule militates against an October 17 meeting.”)

Garner corrects a common error in usage: “Mitigate against,” is incorrect for “militate against.”

He provides two useful examples to demonstrate this error:

(1) “In general, the speed of mass communication mitigates [read ‘militates’] against exploring an issue carefully as people’s attention span decreases in correlation with shorter, rapid-fire presentation.” (Barry R. McCaffrey, “Perspective on Illegal Drugs,” L.A. Times, 2 Jan. 1997, p B7, in Garner, 1).

(2) “It is the one thing that most mitigates [read ‘militates’] against the Patriots winning their last two games.” (Ron Borges, “Two-Game Series for Patriots,” Boston Globe, 18 Dec. 2002, p E1, in Garner, 1).

Today, Garner writes, “mitigate” is almost invariably transitive, a synonym of “alleviate.” The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes an intransitive sense, meaning “to grow milder or less severe,” but labels it rare.

Garner says that using “mitigate” with “against” is not standard e.g. (3): “The show’s excellent 57-page guide mitigates against [read ‘mitigates’] its density, as does the curators’ healthy respect for the impact of real things.” (Roberta Smith, “Icy Genius with a Taste for Order,” N.Y. Times, 29 Nov. 2002, p E37 in Garner, 1).

I’d add a similar error of mine, from undergrad days (4): “Lorna Crozier’s speaker provides a momentary flicker of optimism that mitigates against [the “against” should be moved] the unrelenting despair of the closing lines.”

As a reader and editor, I rarely see the term “militate” used at all, and when I do, it’s usually used wrongly: Garner concludes that “Militate against” — as well as “militate in favor of” or “militate for” — is perfectly acceptable. E.g (5).: “The campaign he ran militates against the historic presidency he would like to lead.” (Jonathan Rauch, “Self-Inflicted Budget Woes,” U.S. News & World Rep., 18 Nov. 1996, p 94, in Garner, 1).

I’ll add this (6): “Readers’ conscientious efforts to understand errors in usage militate in favour of Garner continuing to share his ‘usage tips.’ ”

Garner concludes that “militate toward” is unidiomatic.

Have you confused “mitigate” and “militate” in your mind? Or avoided both because you weren’t sure how to distinguish between them? Please share your usage bugbears with me! With your permission, I’ll use them in a future blog or e-newsletter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.