Language Corner

Is it wrong to say you ‘raised’ kids? 

October 28, 2019

Writers who went to journalism school often learned certain style “rules” that are less absolute than they may seem. “Irregardless” is not a word. (It is, but one most people would be smart to avoid.) “None” is always singular. (It can be plural, depending on the context.) “Media” is always plural. (That ship sailed long ago.) Crops and animals are “raised”; children are “reared.” 

That last one is still evolving. Ask Google which is “correct,” and people behind the articles in the search results will note that they were taught the distinction “years ago” in school, but acknowledge that most people use “raise.” In fact, people have favored that term for hundreds of years, yet the myth remains that “rear” was the only proper way to refer to bringing a child to adulthood.

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Why was “raise” considered wrong to begin with? We’ve been unable to find a definitive answer. In a November 1906 issue of Correct English: a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Proper Use of English, “The Errors of the Educated” column said (complete with a missing open quote mark): “Cattle are raised, but it is not good form to speak of raising human beings; as, I have raised 10 children.’ Human beings are ‘brought up,’ or in the older phrase, ‘reared.’” So even in 1906 “rearing” a child was old-fashioned.

Frank H. Vizetelly, an editor of Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary, wrote in his 1906 Desk-book of Errors in English that the verb “raise” “is often misapplied to the bringing up of human beings. One rears cattle, raises chickens, but brings up children. Rear, meaning ‘to nurture and train,’ may also be used of children.”

The 1935 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not mention the distinction. More recent editions say that “raise” is common in American English for plants, livestock, and children, but that “rear” is also used of livestock and children. In British English, “rear” is used only for animals, modern Fowler says.

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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that “raise” for children may have been British English until about 1800, and that it’s possible that some Americans noticed its continued use here and so disparaged it as “provincial,” giving rise to “rear.” Even so, “raise” never disappeared from American English, and despite its disparagement, “is both perfectly respectable and still very common in the Southern U.S.,” M-W Usage says.

The Associated Press Stylebook disagrees that livestock can be “reared”: “Only humans may be reared. All living things, including humans, may be raised.” Other stylebooks are silent.

Both words come from the same root, a Scandinavian word meaning to cause something to rise or stand up, as a horse “rears” on its hind legs. So there’s no etymological reason for the distinction. And once you add anything to “reared,” it becomes less useful: “Born and reared grates on the ear.

Many commentators over the years have tried to take down the myth that children must be “reared.” In 1965, Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in The Careful Writer: “At one time, a war raged (and some skirmishes still go on) against the use of raise to describe what parents do to children. The battle cry was, ‘You raise pigs, but you rear children.’ However, in this country at least, the war is over; we raise both pigs and children, and some parents will testify that you can’t always tell the difference.”

William Safire tried to put the controversy to rest in 2006. “As a young language maven,” he wrote, “whenever I heard someone say, ‘That’s how I raise my kids,’ I would pass along the rule ‘You raise cattle but you rear children.’” But he saw the light. “Although I’m usually a prescriptive usagist, I’ll now argue that to tut-tut at ‘I’m raising my kid to be a billionaire’ is to commit an incorrection,” which he defined as “a correction that is itself incorrect.” (The Times still frowns on “kid” except in “lighter contexts.”)

Yet people still cite the old “rule,” even as they say it no longer applies.

Things are changing, though. This Google ngram shows that “raise children” took off in the late 1960s, while “rear children” stayed relatively static.

Why “raise” has fallen off since 2000 is anybody’s guess. But it’s perfectly standard English, even rating a Stage 5 on the five-stage Language-Change index in Garner’s Modern English Usage, meaning it is “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.”

Instead of “raising” or “rearing” a child, maybe you just want to bring one up. It’s not any easier, but it might prevent language sticklers from “rearing” up their heads and offering an “incorrection.”

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