Column: ‘Perpetrate’ or ‘perpetuate’


Question: “Here is one you might want to comment on: Does someone perpetrate a fraud or perpetuate a fraud – or does it depend on how long he/she intends to do it?” – (Wayne Sturtevant)

Answer: Thanks for the question, Wayne. It’s funny you should mention fraud…

The Grammar Guy column has been on a bit of a hiatus these last few weeks as I was in South Bend covering a trial dealing with, of all things, murder and insurance fraud. I suppose it makes sense to resume my grammar musings where my trial coverage left off.

At any rate, what we have here are near-homophones that both come to us from Latin. “Perpetrate” derives from the Latin perpetrare, or “to perform.” On the other hand, “perpetuate” comes from perpetuare, meaning “to make permanent.”

You can tell from those definitions, I imagine, that “perpetrate” is going to be the appropriate word generally when dealing with crime. You perpetrate a heist. You perpetrate identity theft. You might even perpetrate some jaywalking, if you’re feeling really rebellious.

Fraud is an interesting example, though, because unlike many other crimes which are encapsulated into a small timeframe, fraud can continue on at length. That means once the fraud is in place, you would be totally appropriate to say you are “perpetuating” a fraud. Of course, you would “perpetrate” it in the first place – something has to already be in action before you can perpetuate it.

All that being said, crime is bad and you shouldn’t do it … although I might be able to overlook jaywalking.

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