“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.

7 thoughts on ““Remediate” v. “Remedy””

  1. Hi Ken,

    I agree that in the educational and environmental contexts to which you refer, there is in “remediate” an implication of practical remedial action to achieve a specific goal which is not exactly co-terminous with “remedy”. However, this specific meaning of “remediate” is plainly a subset of “remedy”, which is why I suspect that GMAU sees it as redundant.

    But even if the need for a specific usage is conceded, that raises several questions. First, was it in fact necessary to develop the new word? Perhaps not, since I think that the specific shade of meaning in “remediate” is probably a sub-set of the more general “remedy”, and so this latter word could have easily have accommodated the same implication of action. Second, even if it was necessary to develop it in the educational context, was it necessary to spread it to the other, environmental, context? If so, then it is likely to spread beyond these two contexts into areas where it is thought that the same implication of practical action is also appropriate. And if that happens, it will become increasingly difficult to insist on the difference between “remedy” and “remediate” as infinitives.

    Indeed, I have heard many politicians seeking to strike activist poses use “remediate” in non-educational and non-environmental contexts when they plainly can only mean “remedy”. The fact that “remediate” is, at best, a specific contextual sub-set of “remedy” is being lost, and the two are increasingly being equiperated, with “remediate” becoming the “wordy” way of saying “remedy”. This is to be deprecated, and for this reason, I would be more in tune with the philosophy underlying GMAU

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  2. Eoin: I suspect that the bifurcation began not with remediate but with use of remediation rather than remedying.

    And I’m comfortable with the bifurcation. The medical sense of remedy, namely applying a cure, has a very different flavor than does remediate, which, at least in the environmental context, conveys the sense of cleaning up.

    Ken

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  3. Remediate, in the sense of environmental cleanup, is one of the few reverse formations that does not bother me. (“Cohabitate” particularly nauseatates me, even more than “administrate.”) Is the remedy for an environmental problem the cleanup (remediation), or is it a monetary award, civil or criminal penalty or injunctive relief, or is it a judicial or administrative proceeding seeking that relief? Using “remediation” removes the ambiguity.

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  4. I was just searching for "remediate v. remedy" and stumbled on this discussion. I need to use the appropriate word in a sentence where a seller should remediate/remedy certain conditions before selling the property. I think that real estate transactions is another area where remediate is more suitable. On the other hand, and no one mentioned it, the meaning of remediate can potentially be confusing with a concept of re-mediation (i.e. when you have to mediate a dispute the second time).

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    • "Remediation" meaning to mediate again is very clumsy. And any scenario that could result in confusion between that meaning and the "cleanup" meaning would have to be really, really far-fetched.

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  5. I stumbled across this thread a dozen years too late, it seems. In the field I work in—cybersecurity—“remediate” has a strong following amongst risk managers. Received tribal wisdom states that when discovering a new risk, the assessor can choose to accept, transfer, or remediate the risk. I have discouraged the use of the latter term in favor of the simpler and more direct word fix.

    Reply

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