Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating equal rights for all.

Hang on tight, everyone. Here’s another language rant. This one’s about a widespread example of English usage in need of improvement: writing advocate for instead of, simply, advocate, where advocate is a verb.

I believe the confusion originates in this word’s ability to serve as both noun and verb.

When used as a noun, advocate is usually followed by the prepositions of or for. Examples:

  • Martin Luther King was a passionate advocate of equal rights for all Americans.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch was a strong advocate for the accused.

Now let’s look at both examples, but change the sentences so as to use advocate as a verb.

  • Martin Luther King passionately advocated equal rights for all Americans.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch strongly advocated the innocence of the accused.

Gregory Peck (left), in the role of Atticus Finch in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, advocating the innocence of the accused.

Note that in both verb sentences, advocate is not followed by for. That’s how the verb “advocate” is supposed to be used. Without “for.”

While we often see and hear advocate for (where advocate is a verb), frequent usage does not necessarily make good usage.

Lest I be perceived as a nitpicker, let me cite The New York Times in support of my view. It calls advocate for an “ungainly construction” and criticizes the following examples, among others, from writing on its own pages:

  • the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for farmland preservation
  • the Freelancers Union, which advocates for the rights of contingent workers

Advocate, explains the Times, “is a transitive verb that should take a direct object. You advocate limited government; you don’t advocate FOR limited government. If ‘advocate’ alone doesn’t sound right, consider alternatives like ‘work for,’ ‘campaign for’ or ‘press for.’ ” To those suggestions, I would add support, encourage and call for.

I rest my case.

6 replies
  1. Rita Freed
    Rita Freed says:

    Usage changes seem to become pervasive faster nowadays. Young people in every era have distinguished themselves through language from what’s “old,” and now, in a capitalist system that long commodified all culture, the demand for profitable digital attention generates deluges of new memes and jargons. They don’t have to clarify communication; just be clickable.

    It’s great that PFR and followers are attentive to these mutations/deformations. Please also don’t be fish; recognize and acknowledge the system in which we and our language swim.

    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rita. I’m as aware as most people of the continual evolution of language — to the point where some words actually change their meaning 180 degrees over time. And I’m aware that changes not only to language but to so much in the world around us have been proceeding at a dizzying pace, particularly since the dawn of the atomic age. (FYI, back in 1985 I wrote about this in a statement I drafted [when I was a Foreign Service officer] for former President Reagan. The statement was posted at the entrance to the U.S. Pavilion at Tsukuba Expo ’85 in Japan and printed in the official U.S. Pavilion brochure — Today I mainly regret having somehow neglected to mention the development of agriculture alongside the taming of fire and invention of the wheel. [I also drafted the accompanying statement by Amb. James J. Needham.])

      Still, as something of an old fuddy-duddy, I find some changes in the vernacular quite grating to my septuagenarian ears. So I’d like to hope that at least some of those, perhaps like you, who find it exhilarating to surf the waves of language change will cut this old stick-in-the-mud (a status my mom often warned me against) a bit of slack. Thanks.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.