militate vs mitigate

Only two letters/phonemes distinguish them, but their meanings are worlds apart—theoretically, at least.

mitigate

Mitigate, from Latin mītigāre, is transitive, means, broadly speaking, ‘to make something less severe or rigorous’ and is applied to pain and otherwise undesirable circumstances. It was brought into English as early  as 1425 in a medical context translated from French (Auicen mytygateþ þe akyng with opio ‘Avicenna mitigates the pain/soreness with opium’). Some typical nouns used with it are risk, impact, effect, damage, loss, and suffering, e.g.

Currently, research in the North Central Region is focusing on methods that mitigate the adverse impacts of agricultural drainage.

Some representative literary examples: Let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners—Virginia Woolf, 1925; The King’s eventual course of action did nothing to miti­gate the conspirators’ difficultiesAntonia Fraser, 1979; A great yellow sun like a runaway balloon shone from a deep blue sky, and a cooling breeze from the lagoon mitigated the heat—L. Wilkinson, 1992; The church, nevertheless, had some influence in mitigating the rigour of criminal law— J. M. Kelly, 1992


militate

Militate is intransitive in the meaning that concerns us, and is used with the preposition against. If A militates against B, A is in some way stopping B happening, or is a factor hindering B, or runs counter to B, e.g:
These disagreements will militate against the two communities coming together;
Three facts, however, militate against this possibility
;
There are, however, powerful political forces that militate against any enduring settlement.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that they sometimes get confused.

Three types of confusion happen.

  1. First, mitigate against is used instead of militate against to mean ‘be a factor working against’. This originally U.S. malapropism goes back at least to 1893 (The fact that..the annual product of silver at this ration has been greater than the product of gold does not mitigate against the argumentN. Amer. Rev.Feb. 176) and no less a literary light than Faulkner used it in 1932. The OED makes no mention of its doubtful status, although the Oxford Online Dictionary does. It has been a usage chestnut for decades, at least since Gowers’ 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Although it is now not rare, it will still be regarded by many people as a mistake.

For example, the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage recommends not using it to mean ‘to run counter to’. A minuscule straw poll of editors suggests most would query it. It is neither very common nor very uncommon: the database I consulted had 14,351 examples of mitigate, of which 476 (i.e. 3.3 per cent) were followed by against. Some examples of this contested use, for which militate against would be correct, or at least preferable, are: *But the time factor may have mitigated against that course—Times, 1977; *But those very factors mitigate against it attracting funding—Art Throb, 2000

mitigate against instead of mitigate

  1. A second contested use is mitigate with the superfluous against instead of the transitive mitigate on its own even when the sense is the one mentioned earlier of ‘lessening the severity of something’:

?He said the party planned to talk to colleagues in the South African Development Community (SADC) to seek help in mitigating against the threat—Daily Telegraph 2009.

IMHO, any editor would have to be extraordinarily persuasive to convince, say, the author of the following that the sentence needed correcting to simple mitigate: ?According to Cisco, creating a strong password policy is the most effective way to mitigate against dictionary attacks.

Tsk, tsk! Zap the ‘against’, fella!
  1. Finally, and only very occasionally, militate is used transitively by mistake for mitigate:

*Sex workers remain and continue to be one of the main sources of the spread of HIV/AIDS. So anything that can militate the spread should be welcome Times (Zambia), 2005.

Lastly, another standard use is worth noting. It is militate intransitively followed by in favo(u)r of, to mean ‘to exert influence or to campaign for’ and ‘to be an argument in support of’: The non-market institutions that militate in favor of greater income equality—trade unions, the public sector, regulatory constraints on financial speculation—took it on the chin —New Republic, 1992.

5 Comments

  1. JB – many thanks for this enlightening post, which I read with great interest!

    Phil Oram

    On Fri, 12 Apr 2019 at 01:45, Jeremy Butterfield Editorial wrote:

    > Jeremy Butterfield posted: “militate vs mitigate Only two letters/phonemes > distinguish them, but their meanings are worlds apart—theoretically, at > least. mitigate Mitigate, from Latin mītigāre, is transitive, means, > broadly speaking, ‘to make something less severe or rigorous’ ” >

    Like

  2. Very interesting! And it is curious that this confusion only came to be noted in the mid-twentieth century. A few nineteenth century usage guides published in the US mention militate. John Pickering (Vocabulary, 1816) reports “militate with” as an American usage. Marion H. Tibbals (Many Mistakes Mended, 1886) says militate is “certainly out of place in common language.” And Richard Grant White (Words and Their Uses, 1899) devote more than a page to criticizing it.”The use of this word is, however, not a question of right or wrong, but one of taste. It belongs to a bad family, of which are necessitate, rationate, effectuate, and eventuate, which, with their substantives … should not be recognized as members of good English society.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your comment, Paul. The last quote is magnificently stuffy: ‘should not be recognized as members of good English society.’ What is the usage of ‘militate with’? Is it the meaning recorded in the OED as 1 a., i.e. Of a person, institution, etc.: to contend in the manner of a soldier; to exert power or influence; to campaign; to strive, e.g. 1799 E. Dubois Piece Family Biogr. III. 157 To incur the severe displeasure of his father and sir David, by disobeying the one, and militating against the peace of the other, was what he could not bear.

    Liked by 1 person

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