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[9-10 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

1. Takeaways – in a nutshell

  • Using “to be adverse to something” to mean “to dislike something” is considered a mistake by many people, dictionaries, and usage guides.
  • It has been suggested that this use may be more common in American English than in British English.
  • Beware of incorrectly using x averse in phrases such as “to have an adverse reaction to something”.
  • Conversely, beware of using adverse in compound adjectives formed with averse: risk-averse, not x risk-adverse.

 2. In detail

2.1 Averse

How many times have you seen sentences such as “He was not adverse to compromising himself politically for the sake of his career” or “Are Scottish people adverse to a little sex in their movies?

They seem to confuse two words that are almost identically spelled but have rather different meanings.

The standard construction to suggest that a person has a strong dislike of or antipathy towards something is averse to, often used with negation:

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online)
Strong and aggressive, he is not averse to a bit of shirt pulling and uses his arms effectively to hold off defenders.
Now some of you may know that if an opportunity arises of a little fun with a person of the opposite sex I’m not averse, rare as it is.
I also stand to see the value of my property increase, which I’m not averse to.
I am a recent alumna of the University of Waterloo and do not consider myself in any way averse to liberal writing.
I’ve noticed I’m becoming more and more averse to what I call overt luxury.

As in all but one of the examples above-and note how most of them are first person statements-, averse in negative contexts is often a form of ironic understatement, or litotes: “I’m not averse to” means something like “I’m really rather keen on” (though perhaps reluctant to admit it). All the examples above also show averse being used in the structure to be averse to, i.e. predicatively.

Averse is also often used as the second part of a compound adjective, such as risk-averse, change-averse and so forth. risk_averse_2Occasionally NOUNadverse is wrongly used, as in this article on the use of “guys”.

2.2 Adverse

Adverse, broadly speaking, means: “unfavourable” (an adverse balance of trade, adverse circumstances, adverse weather conditions); “hostile” (adverse criticism, an adverse reaction); or “harmful” (adverse effects)

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online/Oxford English Corpus)

From 1997 to 2000, the combination of adverse weather and declining sales led to retrenchment by any cooperatives.
A series of meetings at the department after the leak of cabinet papers and the widespread adverse reaction to the government’s plans has led ministers to slow the process.
Such events promote Belfast’s image and go some considerable way to countering the adverse publicity the city has often received over the years.
The trials had been cancelled after the drug was found to cause an adverse reaction.
Roadworks on three of the routes in and out of Skipton are having an adverse effect on local businesses.

In contrast to averse, in these examples adverse modifies a following noun (in other words, it is attributive).

3. Can the word’s origins help?

Without falling into the etymological fallacy, (the notion that a word’s original meaning, or its meaning in the language from which it derives, is its only true meaning) examining these two words’ origins may help clarify the distinction between them.

Both come from Latin, and contain the Latin verb vertere, “to turn”, found in so many other verbs and adjectives, (convert, divert, extrovert, invert, pervert, etc).

The late 16th century averse comes from Latin aversus ”turned away from”, past participle of avertere. The a- part gives it the meaning “away from”. The old-fashioned phrase “avert your gaze” means “turn your gaze away”, in other words “look away”. Remembering that, and the related noun aversion, may help to crystallize the distinction.

In contrast, adverse from Latin adversus “against, opposite”, suggests the notion of one thing being in opposition to another, and therefore hostile or unfavourable to it. Its related noun is adversity, a synonym for misfortune or difficulty.

4. adverse to: a complication

To be adverse to mirrors averse to structurally in certain phrases, particularly in legal contexts, e.g. “…‘adverse party’ includes every party whose interest on the case is adverse to the interests of the appellant…”–Wisconsin Statutes, 1947;  “…the whole parliamentary tradition as built up in this country…is adverse to it“–Winston Churchill, 1942. But in this meaning it refers to things, to external circumstances, whereas, as we have seen, averse to refers to someone’s personal tastes and inclinations.

5. What do usage guides say?

The Oxford Dictionary Online has a note that calls e.g. “He is not adverse to making a profit” a mistake. The AP Style Guide and the British Guardian Style Guide draw an absolute distinction between the two words, as does Fowler. fowlersMerriam-Webster’s Concise English Usage has a long, scholarly, slightly non-committal discussion pointing to potential overlaps between the two words. The grammar checker in Microsoft’s Word will flag up “not adverse to” as a mistake-which is helpful for many people, but could cause problems for those–often, but not necessarily, lawyers–who are using it correctly.

A quick scan of Google Ngrams for “not averse to” and “not adverse to” suggests that while “not adverse to” was previously often confined to legal contexts of the kind mentioned at 4. above, recent decades show an increase in its use as a substitute for the preferred “not averse to”.

In the Oxford English Corpus, a simple search for “adverse to” shows that in British English 60 per cent of examples are in legal contexts, and therefore assumed to be correct, but in American English that figure is less than 1 per cent.

However, it cannot automatically be inferred that the use of the phrase  in non-legal contexts is wrong. In fact, in AmE only one third of those non-legal uses were of the criticized use, while in BrE it was over two thirds. If one compares the number of times averse to was actually used with approximate estimates of how often adverse to was used for it by mistake, the figures are as follows: BrE 730/92; AmE 662/81 giving ratios of around 8:1 for both. This evidence does not suggest that the mistake is more frequent in AmE than in BrE.

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