The words militate and mitigate are similar in sound and appearance, with just two different letters out of eight. Both are formal words that are used infrequently but in similar contexts, so they’re easily mixed up. In my work as a proofreader and copy-editor, I recently fixed this error four times in one week – from four different writers. Clearly, it’s confusing people. Let’s see if we can mitigate, and militate against, this tricky problem.
Mitigate is the more common word. It’s a transitive verb meaning ‘reduce the harmful effects of something’ – to soften, alleviate, make less severe. A tennis player might mitigate a toe injury by resting for a while. Mitigate occurs in the phrase mitigating circumstances: if someone steals food for their hungry children, those circumstances are mitigating because they ‘help to explain a crime or mistake and make it seem less bad’.
Militate is (usually) an intransitive verb meaning ‘to have force or effect’. It’s normally used in the phrase militate against, meaning ‘make something more difficult to do or less likely to happen’. The same tennis player might militate against future injury by strapping her toe when she plays. Less commonly, militate can be used in a positive way: to militate for or in favour of something, meaning to have an effect or carry weight in that direction: the tennis player’s physio exercises will militate in favour of her recovery.
Because mitigate (reduce harmful effects) is sometimes like a subset of militate (have an effect), people often use mitigate when they mean militate. We know this because they write *mitigate against. Usually the writer means militate against, but not necessarily. Readers can’t always figure it out, and it isn’t their responsibility. It’s up to writers and editors to know the difference and militate against the error.
Any number of usage dictionaries and writing manuals note the meanings of these words but offer no way to commit them to memory. That’s where mnemonics come in. We can devise tricks to distinguish the words in our minds and avoid future uncertainty. (See my posts on peak/peek/pique and complement/compliment for recent examples.) Mnemonics work best when we can bring them quickly and reliably to mind. You can create your own, based on something of personal relevance, or use the following as a guide.
Mitigate and militate can be distinguished by focusing on the third letter. Mitigate has ‘t’, so think of mitigating a tennis injury – the toe, or a tendon strain. Militate against has ‘l’, so connect this to the idea of making something less likely. Militate is related to military, which presents other possibilities. If your mnemonic isn’t working, try another, or go with plan B: look it up.