‘Reference’ vs. ‘Refer’

George Orwell, author of 1984 and, among much else, an essay, “Politics and the English language,” which includes six rules of writing (see below)

Here’s a use of a word I believe good writers should always avoid: reference when the simple verb refer is what’s really meant.

Reference is a perfectly good noun:

  • The professor gave Oscar, a superlative student, a glowing reference.
  • I wouldn’t use that article as a reference; it doesn’t cite sources.
  • The report made reference to a frequently cited climate-change model. (However, it would be preferable to write the report referred to … because it’s shorter, simpler and more reader-friendly)

It can also be used as an adjective:

  • A good dictionary is an unparalleled reference.

In some specialized cases, it can also be used as a verb – usually as a past participle:

  • His biography is replete with well-referenced material.

However, there’s no good reason to use reference as a verb where refer will convey your meaning more plainly and concisely. Unfortunately, I see this poor usage – typical of inflated corporate and academic jargon – far too often. Here’s a recent example in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal, normally a paragon of excellent writing:

On July 8, 2017, the Journal reported that a White House source had said “the issue was referenced but there was no substantive discussion.”

It would have been far better to write “the issue was referred to [or mentioned] but there was no substantive discussion.”

Replacing refer with reference violates three of George Orwell’s six rules of writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Reference in place of refer may not be exactly barbarous, but it’s far from pretty.

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