Wordwatch Towers

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

Prevaricate and procrastinate

with 8 comments

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Ben Summerskill writes in the UK newspaper the Guardian:

Labour activists are delighted that David Cameron has been caught on camera … appearing to prevaricate evasively …

Hang on a sec, I hear a ringing noise. Oh yes, it’s my tautology warning bell going off. ‘Tautology’ means to say the same thing twice in different words. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives the following example of a tautology:

They arrived one after the other in succession.

So why is ‘prevaricate evasively’ a tautology? Well, because ‘prevaricate’ means to speak or act in an evasive way. See Oxford Dictionaries. Therefore ‘evasively’ is redundant in the above extract.

Prevaricate and procrastinate

Now I’ve got that out of my system, I can go back to the intended subject of this post which is that ‘prevaricate’ is very often confused with the word ‘procrastinate’ which means to ‘put off doing something’. See Oxford Dictionaries on ‘procrastinate’.

A Mr Michael Bulley made this apposite observation in a Guardian online comments thread a while back:

The Guardian corrections column has often apologized for the incorrect use of ‘prevaricate’. For those who think these things trivial, there was a story going around, specific enough to make you suspect it was true, at the time of the Falklands War, that the conflict was hastened by a communique from the British government which intended to accuse the Argentinians of procrastination, but which instead used the word prevarication. The message, it is said, was translated by a Spanish speaker who didn’t know that some Britons misuse ‘prevaricate’, and so the Argentinian government believed itself accused of deliberate deception and responded with actions rather than words.

Commonly confused and just plain wrong

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8 Responses

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  1. Oh, I didn’t even know the word prevaricate existed. Learned something new today then. Thanks! On the other hand, I’m intimately familiar with procrastination. 😉

    TaleTellerin

    24/05/2010 at 12:50 pm

    • Hi, there — you and me both on the procrastination front!

      Deborah

      24/05/2010 at 12:53 pm

      • As seem to be most people which is why I can’t stop finding it weird that not-procrastinating is still understood as the way to go. At least here in Germany.

        TaleTellerin

        24/05/2010 at 12:57 pm

        • Well… given the choice between prevaricating and procrastinating, I think the latter is preferable!

          Deborah

          24/05/2010 at 1:06 pm

          • I agree. After I had to think hard to remember what prevaricating was again. Heh.

            TaleTellerin

            25/05/2010 at 5:58 am

  2. Here’s an interesting post from David Crystal about useful tautology:

    http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/2010/05/on-useful-tautology.html

    Deborah

    25/08/2010 at 11:22 am

    • Very interesting, thanks Deborah. I always said that nobody tautologizes like Popeye 😉

      Jo

      25/08/2010 at 11:33 pm

      • Me likes what me likes.
        I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam!

        Just a couple of examples from Popeye! Thanks, Jo — I’m glad you found it interesting. I really enjoyed Crystal’s piece too.

        Deborah

        26/08/2010 at 8:20 am


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