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Q&A: mandate

Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

We recently received a question from a reader about the exact meaning of the verb mandate. (I have shortened it somewhat as it was rather long).

I was wondering if you could resolve a dispute I had with a colleague. In the review of a document the verb “mandate” was used. We disagreed about how to correctly interpret the meaning in the context, and whether the use of “mandate” is correct.

The context is regarding an action for which specific instructions are provided for HOW it should be done, and that this means the action is mandated. However, the context does not refer in any way to WHETHER the action should/must be done. In other words, does dictating specific instructions for HOW an action must be done but not mentioning at all WHETHER the action must be done mean that the action is mandated?

When an action has specific instructions dictating how it must be done but no instruction that it must be done, is it wrong to say that the action, or performing the action, is mandated?

Here is my answer:

The fact is that the verb mandate has two meanings, as shown in Macmillan Dictionary, the first being ‘to give someone the authority to do something’ and the second, ‘to give an official order or make a law stating that something must be done’. The second is more common in American English but increasingly used in British English as well.

The examples given in Macmillan Dictionary show the two meanings clearly:

1. The committee is mandated to carry out prison checks. (It has the authority to do so.)

2. These proposals hope to reduce traffic and mandate lower speed limits. (The lower speed limits will be compulsory.)


San Francisco recently mandated that its public schools teach about World War II in Asia. (The schools have to teach it.)

The word’s origins tend to support the second meaning more than the first, since it comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning ‘something commanded’. The second and more forceful meaning is also reflected in the adjective mandatory, which means ‘obligatory or compulsory’.

So in a sense the questioner and their colleague are both right, because the verb can have either meaning. I suppose the commonsense interpretation would be that if you are saying how something should be done you are also saying that it should be done. I’m not sure a lawyer would have much time for such an interpretation, though.

A look at our large corpus of modern English shows that the second meaning seems to be becoming the dominant one, being frequently used with subjects like ‘law’, ‘act’, ‘statute’ and ‘constitution’, and modified by adverbs like ‘statutorily’, ‘federally’, and ‘constitutionally’. So it may be that we need to look again at the evidence to see if the order of senses in Macmillan Dictionary should be changed to reflect this.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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