‘Educate’ vs. ‘Inform’


As regular readers of this blog are aware, every once in a while I take time away from retelling stories I find entertaining and go on a little language rant. As a writer and editor, I hope my friends will view this as coming inevitably with the territory.

Today’s post – about the widespread overuse of the word educate – will be brief.

In the good old days, education was something mostly done in schools and colleges, where young people were taught about things that would be useful to them.

These days, however, the word has been running amok, appearing in some of the – to me – least likely places. For example:

  • “As your real estate agent, I’ll need to educate you about title insurance.”
  • “Please educate those new parents about the importance of proper nutrition for their children.”
  • “It’s critical to educate millennials about why failing to vaccinate their children can lead to the spread of terrible illnesses.”

You’ve probably seen hundreds of sentences like these. “What’s wrong with them?” you ask. What’s wrong is that they all sound condescending … patronizing. From an early age, we all learn that education is for young, inexperienced people who are unfamiliar with a subject. Educating someone means, in essence, that a more experienced, knowledgeable person is sharing information with – usually – younger, less knowledgeable people.

To be blunt, the image of education in many people’s minds carries strong connotations of hierarchy, of superiors instructing those in a subordinate position. It usually means transmitting information from older, wiser, more senior people to younger, less experienced students.

So next time you’re tempted to say you want to educate someone about something, think again. Try using a term that doesn’t carry the burden of condescension, like inform, familiarize, explain, clarify.

Because nobody likes to be addressed in a way that makes them feel diminished, why unnecessarily let yourself be perceived as condescending? Try to avoid writing or saying educate. Use a kinder, gentler word. By not unintentionally making your readers or listeners feel reflexively defensive in response to the person delivering the message, it will convey your ideas more effectively.

2 replies
  1. Don Bates
    Don Bates says:

    Howard, I agree. Teachers educate. PR pros inform, engage, introduce, promote, publicize, encourage, invite, suggest, urge, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of PR practitioners use action verbs too casually rather than taking a minute to find one that is more suitable for the action involved. Thus, the almost addictive use in the industry of the cliche “launched” for every program we develop. Why not try more precise terms that make the action clearer? For example, announced, introduced, designed, created, organized, inaugurated, kicked off, initiated. Taking a little time to find the best word rather than any word is guaranteed to increase one’s vocabulary and make one a better writer in the process.

    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Thank you, Don. You’re absolutely right about PR pros too often using words “too casually.” When I was working in PR – and making an effort to strengthen my colleagues’ writing – I developed a little list of words that people would often use lazily and with woeful imprecision. Often, they’d write coordinate when what they meant was arrange, schedule or make happen. Or execute when the real meaning was accomplish, carry out or do. Or implement when the intended meaning was make happen or put into effect. Another one: facilitate for a wide range of actions including arrange, schedule, participate in, lead and hold. Also update for confer, consult, discuss, fill in, inform. Or debrief for confer, discuss or counsel. And, finally, an adjective, integral for critical, vital, important, essential, fundamental. Whew! Glad to get that off my chest again! Thanks.


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