“Remediate” v. “Remedy”

In contracts and elsewhere, it’s standard to refer to remediation of environmental contamination. It’s also standard to use the verb remediate to refer to the act of remediation.

Garner’s Modern American Usage isn’t fond of remediate:

remediate, a back-formation from remediation, is either a needless variant of remedy or a piece of gobbledygook. E.g.:

  • “The evidence suggested that there was little groundwater pollution and that any such contamination was remediated [read had been remedied].” E.E. Mazier, “Removal of Underground Tanks to Preempt Oil-Leak Liability Did Not Constitute ‘Damages,'” N.J. Lawyer, 12 Aug. 1996, at 28.
  • “Students who don’t pass will be allowed to take the test again in a couple of weeks, will be remediated [read tutored? coached?] until they feel ready to take the test again or will be allowed to retake the course.” Tara Tuckwiller, “Putnam Doesn’t Act on Pay Raises,” Charleston Gaz., 24 June 1997, at C3.

But William Safire has a different view of remediate. The following is from a 1995 New York Times column by Safire:

Recently I was reading, and disagreeing, with a New York Times editorial about standards for teaching history being promulgated by a panel of historians at the behest of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Most of what annoys conservatives can be remediated,” the editorial writer asserted. As a working reader, I rose to the bait: why not the simpler, more easily understood remedied? I looked up remediated in the Random House Unabridged and Webster’s New World, and could find only the noun, remediation, which W.N.W. defined as an Americanism used in education, “the act or process of remedying or overcoming learning disabilities or problems.” The most familiar use of the word is in remedial reading.

Why did the writer choose remediate? According to the lexicographer Cynthia Barnhart, working on her fourth dictionary of new English, that verb was first back-formed in this sense in 1954 in the Britannica Book of the Year; remediated was defined there as “subjected to remedial education” and is now firmly fixed in education jargon. The Times editorial writer used it, I think, to give a classroom connotation to the fix possible for the legislative proposal.

That was nice coloration of prose; though the writer’s position, to my thinking, was harebrained, the demand placed on me as a working reader by the editorial writer was legitimate, and the result of my search for meaning was satisfying. (I have not called my colleague for fear of hearing, “Yeah, the word I meant was remedied.”)

I agree with Safire. In both environmental and educational circles, remediation has acquired a specialized meaning. The verb remediate evokes that specialized meaning, so it seems a straightforward choice. To insist on remedy is to fight an uphill battle.

But that doesn’t mean remediate is always going to be used appropriately. It doesn’t work in the second bullet point in the extract from Garner’s Modern American Usage, but then neither would remedy.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.