Proportionate vs. Proportional

While the entire English-speaking world eagerly awaits the American Dialect Society’s announcement of their word of the year (WOTY) for 2014 (…they are eagerly awaiting, aren’t they…?), here’s a quick post on a word pair that was getting a lot of visibility in the news recently: proportional and proportionate.

Somewhat late in the game in all the North Korea/Sony-hacking brouhaha last month, the White House announced that the President was planning to respond “proportionally” to the incident. That’s the quoted word, a form of proportional, which was also used by the White House.

Here’s one exact quote, from Josh Earnest, at a White House press briefing on 18 December 2014:

…as we would be in any scenario…like this, they would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response…

I’ve edited the quote for simplicity. You can read the whole thing via the included link, but trust me on this: press conference transcripts, because they are verbatim records of spoken questions and answers, often given off the cuff, are frequently difficult to read. They’re simply awful examples of written language, precisely because they’re not really written language: they are recordings of spoken language, which isn’t quite the same thing.

The President himself used the word twice in this press conference. Here’s one example:

We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.

A statement was also released a couple of weeks later which refers to the actual executive order authorizing retaliatory action, using the term “proportional.

Here’s the thing. While the President and his officials use the word “proportional,” it’s not unusual to hear the word reported as “proportionate.” But that’s not just a spoken slip: if you fine tune a Google search you’ll discover that more hits turn up using proportionate than proportional (by a ratio of about 4:3). What’s going on here? Are the words interchangeable? And, if not, why is one being used so often in place of the other?

If you look carefully at the search results, you might notice that while proportional is used most frequently by the US press, foreign publications writing in English are more likely to use proportionate.

Is this an American English vs. International English thing? Or is it something else? More than one of the foreign sources I checked attribute their quotations to the President’s CNN interview (December 21st). But if you listen to that interview, he clearly says “proportionally.” There’s no “ate” anywhere in it. Interestingly enough, the error might be traceable to CNN itself: the word is spelled correctly in one transcript but incorrectly in another, both on CNN’s own web site.

Way to go, CNN: because most of the world’s English-speaking press outside the US relied on you for this interview, the error went around the world with the speed of the Internet.

But that’s unfair to CNN. Their transcription error undoubtedly spawned many of the errors, as it was copied by lazy news outlets around the globe. It’s also clear, however, that just as many of the “proportionate” errors refer back to the earlier press conferences of Earnest and Obama. Which means that the use of this word (over proportional) was primarily the result of careless (or deliberate?) changes to the actual words that were spoken.

Many of these errors put the word in quotation marks. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find it disheartening that any journalistic organization would use a word that a person didn’t actually say and put it in “full quotes” as if it were verbatim speech.

Journalistic knuckleheadedness aside, what’s the difference between these two words, if there even is one? Let’s take a quick look at what the grand dame of English language dictionaries, the OED, has to say.

To summarize, OED defines proportional as something “that is in proportion,…related proportionately to something,…relative.” It defines proportionate as “adjusted in proportion;…proportional (to); appropriate in respect to quantity, extent, degree, etc.”

If you can discern a practical distinction between these two words using those definitions, which include a circular reference, you’re better at this than I am. Is it a difference of degree or a degree of difference? I can’t tell.

For what it’s worth, other dictionaries do no better: Merriam-Webster defines proportionate with a single word (“proportional“) while American Heritage is only slightly more descriptive.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (GMAU) comes to the rescue by offering some practical advice, while acknowledging that the distinction is a matter of “nuance” clouded by “the frequent interchangeability of the terms.” For the record, it suggests using these guidelines:

Proportional = (1) of or relating to proportion; or (2) in due proportion. Proportionate = proportioned; adjusted in proportion.

What this suggests to me (and I fully understand if you disagree — the subtleties here might be entirely personal) is that proportional is more on the figurative or intangible side, while proportionate is more along the lines of something physical or tangible. Your response to a wrong will be proportional; but when you divide the profits with your partners, your reward will be proportionate.

Even that might not be particularly helpful, however. So, mostly by default, I’d suggest making the distinction in this way:

Proportional involves fairness or equity or proportionality. It’s proportional if it’s in a proper or accepted relationship to something else. An act of sabotage, for example: if hacking Sony was the act, then retaliating with some form of reciprocal hacking or a measured sanction would be proportional. Ordering a bombing campaign would be grossly disproportional.

Proportionate, on the other hand, would involve the partitioning of a whole, or the allocation of its parts. In the present example, calling for a proportionate response might indicate that each of the parties involved would be punished according to their determined level of blame or involvement — their share of the act. Perhaps this would mean that the North Korean government would receive a sanction, while the Chinese servers which hosted the operation would be electronically attacked, at the same time that the responsible hackers themselves would be targeted for prosecution. The response would be portioned out (“pro-portioned” or apportioned) to those involved. (Note that I’m just making the details up: how this attack was done and who was behind it isn’t something I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about.)

Those are still some very finely sliced distinctions. But any little thing that makes our language more precise today than it was yesterday is an accomplishment in my book.

With this, my first post of 2015, I wish all readers a happy belated New Year. Keep your eyes open for my “WOTY 2014 – Part 2” post, which should be up next week. The ADS will count their votes on Sunday, and I plan to recap here not long after.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to Proportionate vs. Proportional

  1. Travis Bird says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail with your proposed distinction. The two words are either (1) accepted as being synonymous or (2) distinguished by ‘proportional’ meaning ‘in an equal degree/magnitude’ and ‘proportionate’ meaning ‘according to the portion’. I can’t imagine a third explanation. Of the two options the second is persuasive because the capacity to make such separate stipulations exists and these terms can be used to serve the purpose. Hence, one could say: “Our response to these events and their authors will be proportional and proportionate.”

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