Friday, September 26, 2008

Usage tip: conflate vs. confuse

I've seen a lot of misuses of the word conflate lately. Many folks seem to be using it as a cooler-sounding synonym for confuse, as in "don't conflate political ambition with political knowledge."

I have to quote Inigo here: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." (The Princess Bride)

According to my trusty Merriam-Webster (11th edition), this is the definition of conflate:

"conflate (vt): to combine or mix (two variant readings into a single text, etc.)"

And here's the definition of confuse:

"confuse (vt): 1) to mix up; jumble together; put into disorder 2) to mix up mentally; specif. a) to bewilder, perplex b) to embarrass; disconcert c) to fail to distinguish between; mistake the identity of"
(both definitions from p. 306)

Notice the subtle (or not so subtle?) difference here. Confuse means just what everyone thinks it means. If you confuse A with B, it means you don't know the difference between them, or you think they're the same thing. Conflate, on the other hand, doesn't mean what one might expect. If you conflate A with B, it means you combine them and come up with something that's related to both, but different from either.

If you're trying to say that someone has mistaken X for Y, then you need to say that the person has confused X and Y. Use conflate only when you mean that someone has taken multiple (slightly different) statements and combined them into one.

10 comments:

Marc said...

I'm not sure that I agree with you. It's possible to make the statement you list in the opening paragraph, while still correctly using "conflate."

I would say that the usual way that people use the word is to mean "don't mix these two things together as though they are the same, when in fact they are completely different."

If I heard someone say "don't conflate political ambition with political knowledge," I would interpret it as "political ambition and political knowledge are two very different things, but you are acting as though they are the same."

It's not a synonym for "confuse" as much as it is for "combine."

Kate Porter said...

Right, that's what I said--"conflate" is NOT a synonym for "confuse". I agree that it could be taken as a synonym for "combine." That's exactly what the definition I quoted says--that conflate means "to combine or mix".

Obviously the statement "don't conflate political ambition with political knowledge" is grammatically correct and has a meaning. My point was that it doesn't mean the same thing as "don't confuse political ambition with political knowledge"--which is how most people I've seen use it.

Marc said...

Or you are misinterpreting their intention.

Anonymous said...

It could mean that political ambition plus political knowledge is a frightening prospect. It could alternatively mean that political ambition cannot survive in the face of political knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Both are doubtful however.

Russell said...

Are you being selective in your choice of definition? The online Merriam-Webster has your definition as number 2. Definition 1b is "confuse". It also lists confuse as a synonym.

Jim said...

The word you're looking for is "confound"

Weeeeee said...

If people used confound, confuse, confused, and conflate in only the following ways, I think there would be a lot less err ... confusion.

Confound 1 (transitive verb whose direct object is an intangible thing). To introduce uncertainty and a lack of clarity into something. That red herring confounded the discussion. Unanticipated correlations can confound an experiment.

Confound 2 (transitive verb whose direct object is a person). To dumbfound or perplex by upsetting expectations to such a degree that strongly held notions are challenged. The behavior of the big banks that precipitated the financial crisis confounded Alan Greenspan, who firmly believed that concern for their reputation would preclude financial institutions from acting so recklessly.

Confuse (transitive verb whose direct object is a person). To cause to become confused. Muddled explanations can only serve to confuse people.

Confused (adjective describing the mental state of a person). Lacking in clarity about the nature of something, including the difference between it and something else. The business student is confused about the difference between the role of the treasurer and that of the CFO.

Conflate (transitive verb whose direct object is a concept). To mistakenly treat a concept as though it were synonymous with another, distinct concept. Often, the word connotes willfulness or duplicity. The agnostic liberal averred that members of the Christian Right conflate religiosity with virtuousness.

I believe the best writers use these terms in the way I've defined them above. "Confuse" has increasingly been used in the last 100-200 years to mean what I've defined conflate to mean. Personally, I view this usage as sloppy - a function of declining literacy in the United States, rather than of linguistic dynamism, per se. (And yes, I realize how pompous I sound; but relax, it's just my two cents.)

Chris St. John said...

In other words, people often conflate the meanings of the words "confuse" and "conflate".

Jerry LaMartina said...

Merriam-Webster lists "confuse" as both a definition of and a synonym for "conflate" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conflate).
I rarely if ever use conflate, and I looked it up several months ago after someone told me I was conflating some aspects of an argument I'd made. I realized I didn't know the definition of conflate, so I visited my loyal friend M-W, and I realized my accuser had confused what he'd thought was my conflation.