Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Mitigate and militate

with 5 comments

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‘Mitigate’ and ‘militate’ often get confused.

‘Mitigate’ means to make something that is bad less severe or serious. For example:

We are creating more lanes to mitigate traffic congestion on the motorway.

It is also commonly used in a legal context to mean reducing the gravity of an offence, as in ‘mitigating circumstances’.

‘Militate’ is usually used with ‘against’, as in ‘militate against’ to mean ‘a powerful factor preventing something’. For example:

Lack of money will militate against the success of the project.

See Oxford Dictionaries on the difference between these two words.

Look at the following examples, the first from a radio programme transcript on the BBC website and the second from the UK newspaper, the Guardian:

Peter White also asked Kevin Geeson, the RNIB’s Chief Operating officer, what plans they have in place to mitigate against the effects of the current recession.

Through self-help, citizens take action by managing the standpipe or well in their area and by introducing straightforward hygiene practices to mitigate against disease.

In the first example, ‘mitigate’ should have been used on its own (without ‘against’) to mean ‘make the effects of the current recession less severe’.

The second example is a little trickier (although ‘mitigate against’ is incorrect). Perhaps, ‘mitigate’ (without ‘against’) would work, but I think ‘militate against’ is perhaps the best option to convey the meaning that straightforward hygiene practices would be a powerful factor in preventing disease.

Commonly confused words and phrases

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5 Responses

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  1. But why use easily confused, multi-syllabic Latinates when nice, simple words like “reduce” or “fight” work as well?

    Michael Farrell

    17/05/2010 at 6:31 am

    • Why indeed? But best to get them right if you do.

      Deborah

      17/05/2010 at 6:36 am

  2. Guy Keleny writing in The Independent‘s errors & omissions column:

    Miles Howard writes in from Braintree to draw attention to this, from a leading article on Wednesday about elderly NHS patients: “Impersonal structures mitigate against the development of real bonds between staff and patients.” That should be “militate” (fight), not “mitigate” (make mild).

    Deborah

    19/02/2011 at 12:36 pm

    • Or just use English: “prevent real bonds….”

      Michael Farrell

      19/02/2011 at 3:19 pm

      • …radical, but it might just work. Thanks, Michael.

        Deborah

        19/02/2011 at 4:01 pm


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