Column: Grammar mix-up: “Censure” and “censor”


Hello, dear readers! It’s time for another round of “Mixed-Up Grammar,” starring word pairs that get misplaced, misused and all-around abused in the English language.

Our contestants today: “Censure” and “censor.”

You know the word “censor.” As a verb it means to ban or otherwise suppress “unacceptable” parts of a book, movie, famous Italian statue – whatever someone finds offensive at the moment. As a noun, it’s the people who take all the fun away from network television.

“Censure” we don’t see as much. It means “to criticize strongly,” and most often pops up in political contexts. The most recent U.S. congressman to be censured was Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel in 2010 – putting him in the company of the likes of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and U.S. Rep. William D. Bynum, censured in 1890 for “unparliamentary language” (the only Hoosier delegate Congress has ever censured, as it were).

Interestingly, despite the serious political polarization our country has seen on occasion, only one U.S. president has ever been censured. Can you guess who? (If you guessed Calvin Coolidge you’re … not a very good guesser.)

Where these two words get confusing is that “censuring,” at least in the congressional context, does include some amount of censorship, as censured lawmakers temporarily lose their committee memberships and, thus, a lot of their access to the media. However, censorship is not part of the actual definition of “censure.”

A final note on “censorship:” If you’ve been prevented from publishing or saying something because another person found it objectionable – that’s censorship. If you’ve been criticized after the fact – that’s life.

Oh, and the only U.S. president ever censured? Andrew Jackson. Imagine that.

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