Persuasive Convincing

On the vanishing distinctions between "persuade" and "convince"

Back when English grammar was rigorously taught in schools, certain rules were hammered into students’ heads: Never split an infinitive; never end a sentence with a preposition; never use “convince” with an infinitive.

Those teachers may also have sought to “convince” their students that babies are delivered by storks.

All of those “rules” have their fierce defenders. But if you’re already defending the first two, please hold off while we try to “convince” you to change your mind about the third.

In the traditionalist view, “convince” is associated with understanding concepts or with beliefs. When an action is involved—an infinitive form of a verb—“persuade” is in order. You could be “persuaded to marry him”; “persuaded that marrying him was a good idea”; or “persuaded of the viability of the marriage.” But you could not be “convinced to marry him”: instead, you would have to be “convinced that marrying him was a good idea” or “convinced of the viability of the marriage.” That last usage, “convinced” followed by “of,” is also controversial among strict constructionists.

For some others, “persuade” implies that a longer discussion took place, where “convince” is stronger and faster.

But the distinction between “convince” and “persuade” is easily lost—after all, both mean “I’ve listened to the arguments and come around to a different way of thinking”—and people can’t be convinced to follow tradition without good reason, especially when the distinction seems to them to be pedantic.

Careful usage would keep the traditionalists happy, but in a world where messages include numbers where letters used to live (I 8 1 4kful, LOL), it seems counterproductive to try to maintain what amounts to a nicety.
(The Associated Press Stylebook maintains that “You may be convinced that something or of something. You must be persuaded to do something,” a position supported by The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and theChicago Manual of Style, so you may not be “persuaded” to change anyway.)

While the usage of “convince” with an infinitive can be traced back to Shakespeare, if not before, it really picked up steam in the last half of the twentieth century. Many usage authorities now accept that “persuade” and “convince” are virtually interchangeable.

“The earlier usage writers who tried to fence off persuade from convinced and the later ones who tried to fence off convinced from persuade have failed alike,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says. “And in another generation perhaps no one will care.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.