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Persuaded or convinced?

At the outset, an admission: The distinction between persuade and convince has been so thoroughly eroded that any effort to maintain it is futile. I observe it in my own writing, but it is probably a waste of time and attention to hold others to it.

Nevertheless, there is a nuance here that a careful writer might still want to recognize and uphold.

The traditional explanation of the distinction is that the one verb is related to action, the other to a state of being, with the appropriate prepositions: One is persuaded to do something or convinced of something.

I have no great faith in the power of the prepositions to help writers observe a distinction, but I can point out a slight but significant difference in meaning. Convince is stronger than persuade. I might be persuaded to attend a Lady Gaga concert (bribed with fantastic sums, incapacitated by drink, held at gunpoint), but I will never be convinced that it is a good idea.

Persuaded? Better yet, convinced?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:31 AM | | Comments (16)


Is this akin to that old joke about how the grammarian's wife walks in on him and his mistress, and says "Leroy, I'm surprised!" To which he replies, "No, my dear, I'm surprised. You're amazed." Or, um,, something along those lines.

More like Disraeli's distinction: "If Mr. Gladstone were to fall into the Serpentine, it would be a tragedy; if someone were to rescue him, it would be a catastrophe."


As a mostly self-educated person (GED for high school, followed by technical college) this falls in the camp of little things that make a difference to those who know and notice correct and incorrect usage.

A similar favorite is the distinction between fewer and less, with the latter relating to a specific, countable number.

I only learned that one within the past 10 years and it's now interesting to those terms used correctly (or not).

Thanks for an interesting column; I am a subscriber via Google Reader.

Ps. I do think the distinction between fewer and less is more important than that between persuaded and convinced.

But, you did both persuade and convince the distinction matters.

Persuaded me to give the matter some thought, and convinced me of the distinction in terms.

Someone would have convinced you that you should go, though you'd never be persuaded to become a fan. Around and around.

But I agree with your original point: I observe the distinction myself but there are more important things to worry about when editing.

John is a music prescriptionist.

Good one! And don't forget eager vs. anxious. Also, am I the only one still bothered by "pled guilty"?

You could never be convinced? Maybe not. But suppose you had a difficult teenage daughter, and her therapist made the case -- using any evidence you might choose -- that going to see Gaga with her would be a helpful gesture. Wouldn't that mean you were "convinced"? (Not "convinced to go," if you like, but "convinced that it was a good idea to go" -- now there's a fine distinction.)
Perhaps nothing could "convince" you in this case, but that just illustrates the problem that usually comes up when we try to observe these nuances: Somewhere on the border between the words, the choice involves what YOU mean by the word, and there's no guarantee your interlocutor draws the line in the same place -- or has ever heard of the nuance. It takes two to make a meaningful distinction ...

There are areas of overlap between the two meanings, and hence sentences where either could be used. But the big difference for me is the intensity of belief, deriving, perhaps, from where you are placing the responsibility for your beliefs: on others or within yourself.

Imagine Blair or Bush saying 'I am persuaded that it's right to attack Iraq' versuses 'I am convinced...' Or your local preacher on the existence of God, etc.

What has always amazed me is the need to have the different words, fewer and less to cover count nouns and mass nouns respectively while more seems to handle both quite nicely.

"It's a testament to our fondness for recreational nitpicking that so many of us think the less-vs.-fewer distinction is both rigid and important."
--Jan Freeman

I think it was Webster, of the dictionary Websters, whose wife burst in the door to his den whilst his secretary was parked on his lap. His wife professed surprised: he retorted that he and the secretary were surprised, whilst she was astonished.

My 2 cents: to be persuaded smacks of someone causing me to change opinion from position A to position B. To be convinced of smacks of having arrived at the decision to change under my own steam, and I think this differentiation is an enhancement of the language, and alone for this reason worth maintaining.

Take Sid Smith's reference to Bush - if Bush had really said: " I am persuaded that..." instead of " am convinced that..." it would be a perfect case of deniability - someone has caused me to express this opinion - it ain't really mine.....

Perhaps the distinction, Tenderfoot, is necessary so that we do not all fall into the trap of interchanging words whose meanings are not at all alike. (I am currently fuming over the chronic misuse - including in the Sun - of postpone and cancel. Meetings are NOT cancelled until next month!) These things start with small variances,

"Imagine Blair or Bush saying 'I am persuaded that it's right to attack Iraq' versus 'I am convinced...'."

Something I didn't notice when I posted this: "convinced" is further towards being (mostly) an adjective than "persuaded" - which remains (mostly) a past participle with, therefore, an implied active agent lurking somewhere.

"I am convinced..." therefore puts the belief firmly inside "I": indeed, there might be no external "convincer".

To make "convinced" more past participle-y you'd need to introduce an active agent: "I am convinced by my advisors."

I think this is like "I'm tired" (it's midnight and my internal clock is running down) versus "I'm tired from all that walking."

The point still holds, tho: "I am convinced that there is a God" is stronger than "I am persuaded...

Interestingly, just read an extract from The Economist's house style, in Johnson:
"Do not be hectoring or arrogant. Those who disagree with you are not necessarily stupid or insane. Nobody needs to be described as silly: let your analysis show that he is. When you express opinions, do not simply make assertions. The aim is not just to tell readers what you think, but to persuade them; if you use arguments, reasoning and evidence, you may succeed."

I'm convinced "convince" is correct here.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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