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Mitigate or militate?

These two verbs have similar spellings and they sound alike when they are pronounced. As a result, it’s easy to get them confused, even though their meanings are completely different.

Mitigate means ‘make something less harmful, severe, or bad’. It’s often used in formal or official contexts, as in the following sentences from the Oxford English Corpus:

Fiscal measures have been taken to mitigate the effects of the contraction in private sector spending.

The goal is to use good agricultural practices to help mitigate the impact of human activities, such as fossil fuel consumption, on the environment.

Monitoring multiple greenhouse gas emissions is essential to assess ability of cropland management to mitigate global warming.

Soy proteins reduce dietary LDL cholesterol levels and help to mitigate the risk of heart disease.

Mitigate is also commonly used in the adjective form mitigating, especially in the phrase mitigating circumstances. If a person has committed a crime or made a serious mistake, but there are mitigating circumstances, this means that the reason for committing the offence may be easier to understand and therefore the punishment may be correspondingly less severe:

The disciplinary committee recognized the mitigating circumstances and found the applicant guilty, not of cheating, but of the lesser offence of attempting to secure an unfair advantage.

The magistrates took all mitigating circumstances into consideration but said he had demonstrated a blatant lack of engagement in the drug treatment order.

Thanks to his age and other mitigating circumstances, he was only given a two-year jail sentence.

Militate means ‘be a powerful factor in preventing something from happening or existing’. It’s almost always used with the preposition against:

They say the government has set heavy-handed targets which militate against effective learning.

The terms in which the debate is framed militate against a reasoned exchange of views.

The structure of the industry militates against rapid progress.

California’s freeways are congested as never before and the rising cost of land and labour has militated against serious public investment.

If you are unsure which of the two verbs to choose, the best rule of thumb is to remember that militate is used with against, while mitigate is not. If you find yourself writing mitigate against, you’re using the wrong verb!

X We have also argued that overcrowded classes and lack of resources mitigate against the teaching and learning of science and maths.

We have also argued that overcrowded classes and lack of resources militate against the teaching and learning of science and maths.

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