'Averse' and 'adverse'

“I’m not adverse to a little risk,” I said recently in a conversation about personal finance. Then I quickly revised my wording. “Averse. I’m not averse to a little risk.”

For all my years of studying English grammar and usage, I’ve never been comfortable with the difference between “averse” and “adverse.” My solution: I usually try to avoid both words altogether. Once in a while I’ll use “adverse,” only to realize I probably used it wrong, causing me to swiftly backtrack, then double down on my policy of never using either word.

My bad relationship with these words began early in my editing career when a 1965 book called “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein messed with my head: “‘Adverse’ means opposed, antagonistic, hostile. It is incorrectly used in the following sentence: ‘He reads the morning papers and is not adverse to reading about himself.’ In this example of litotes there is no intention of conveying an idea of hostility; the intention is rather to suggest disinclination. ‘Averse,’ therefore, would be the word to use because it means disinclined, reluctant, loath.”

I find that example confusing. As Bernstein himself said, “adverse” can mean “opposed.” So it seems reasonable to say, “He’s not opposed to reading about himself.” After all, a person who strives to be humble or who finds self-centeredness unseemly might oppose reading about himself. Anyone who’s googled their own name knows there’s something a little creepy about reading about oneself. So it’s not unreasonable to point out that, while some folks might be opposed to this kind of navel-gazing, this guy is fine with it.

Bernstein isn’t the only author whose advice on “adverse” and “averse” has let me down. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “When used of people, ‘adverse’ and ‘averse’ are essentially synonymous, but ‘adverse’ chiefly refers to opinion or intention, ‘averse’ to feeling or inclination. Or, as it was put in the Literary Digest of 10 Feb. 1934, ‘We are adverse to that which we disapprove, but averse to that which we dislike.’”

So when you’re talking about people, the two words are synonymous except that they’re a little different? See why I get confused?

Luckily, in the real world, it’s a little easier than that because “adverse” often describes things and “averse” almost always applies to people. After all, an inanimate object can’t be averse to anything because “averse” is a feeling and only living creatures have feelings. Plus, “averse” often pairs with the preposition “to,” as in “I’m averse to risk.” Less commonly, it can also take “from”: “I’m averse from risk.”

Also, while some definitions of “adverse” are similar to those of “averse,” the former also has a unique definition: harmful, unfavorable or opposed to one’s interests.

In this sense, “adverse” often comes right before the word it modifies: Your policies can have an adverse impact, your medication can cause an adverse reaction, and when you go to the beach you want to avoid adverse weather conditions.

Yes, when it means “opposed,” “adverse” can pair up with “to” and describe people, but that’s less common than cases in which it means “harmful” and comes right before a noun.

If you’re looking for an easy guideline, consider this advice from Garner’s Modern American Usage: “To be adverse to something is to be turned in opposition against it — Thailand was adverse to Japan during most of World War II. The phrase usually refers to things, not people. To be ‘averse’ to something is to have feelings against it — averse to risk. The phrase usually describes a person’s attitude. Both words may take the preposition ‘to,’ but ‘averse’ also takes ‘from.’”

Good advice for the brave. But I’ll probably keep sidestepping both words altogether.

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