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Accept or except? Do you ever confuse them?

Accept or except?

 ? The British really are mad as hatters – present company accepted of course.

Do you accept that the above sentence is good English (please disregard the sentiments expressed therein!)? How about these two examples – would you take exception to them?

? She excepts everyone for what they are and I think this is a great trait to have.
? No real geek watches TV any more, accept for some sports games.

If you decided that all three sentences contained mistaken uses of accept and except, you were absolutely correct – well done! However, I’ve spotted such errors in all types of written English, from blogs to online newspapers, which shows that there are many people out there who are getting these words confused and who may need some guidance.

If you’re among those who aren’t 100% sure, you could be forgiven: accept and except sound very similar when we say them. The similarity ends there, though – these words have very different, almost opposite, meanings. If you use them incorrectly, you’ll run the risk of people misunderstanding what you’ve written and getting the wrong impression. For example, ‘she excepts everyone for what they are…’ actually means ‘she excludes everyone for what they are…’ and completely contradicts the writer’s positive opinion of the person in question!

Think you could do with some quick and easy tips to help you to banish confusion and choose the right word every time? Read on…

A shared origin and early confusion

If you’re prone to getting accept and except mixed up, you might find some consolation in learning that writers have been confusing the two for about 600 years.

Before I explain how to differentiate these words, I’d like to take you on a brief detour to discover their historical background (bear with me, it should also help when it comes to remembering their meanings). In fact, accept and except have a common lexical ancestor: the Latin verb capere, which means ‘to take’. The distinction in their meanings stems from the fact that each word begins with a different Latin prefix.

• Accept originates from the Latin verb accipere ‘to receive, take, agree’, which is formed from the prefix ad– (meaning ‘to’, and with the spelling changed to ac-) plus capere.
• Except is from Latin excipire ‘to take out’, which also derives from capere, but with the addition of the prefix ex– (‘out of’) instead.

If you’re prone to getting accept and except mixed up, you might find some consolation in learning that writers have been confusing the two for about 600 years. Here’s a 16th-century example from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which shows except being erroneously used instead of accept:

X  To except them (as they be) very lordes of the narowe sea.

What do you mean?

Having a clear understanding of the main meanings of accept and except is the key to using these words correctly. It also helps if you know what part each word plays grammatically in a sentence.

1. Accept

In modern English, accept only functions as a verb, so if you know that the word you need is a verb, the spelling is most likely to be accept. It has six main meanings, all related to the central idea of agreeing to do or take something:

• to take something that is offered to you; to say yes to an offer or invitation: we hope you will accept our apology for any distress caused; the fund is now accepting donations that will benefit deserving students.
• to agree to or approve of something: I accept the Board’s decision that it’s time for me to step down; they recognized that price promotions were an accepted practice in business.
• to receive someone or something because they are suitable or meet specified requirements: she was accepted by the college of her dreams; we accept all major credit cards.
• to believe that something is true or valid: it is generally accepted that reading is important; I’ve heard of that happening before, so I accepted her explanation.
• to admit or recognize that you are responsible for something: a true leader is one who accepts responsibility for a failure; I accept that I made a mistake.
• to remain in or put up with a difficult situation because there’s no other option: they are forced to accept horrible risks by the economic pressure put on them; thousands accepted deteriorating working conditions so as to feed their families.

Remember that there are words related to accept (such as acceptable and acceptance) which you should also take care to spell correctly. For example, there are over 50 instances of acceptable being wrongly written as exceptable (a word that isn’t part of standard English) in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC):

X  Cheating is not exceptable in any game. 
  Cheating is not acceptable in any game.

2. Except

In modern English, except can be a preposition, a conjunction, or a verb. All of its meanings are based on the idea of leaving someone or something out. As we’ve seen, it begins with the prefix ex– (‘out; outside of’) and is related to all the other English ‘ex-‘ words, such as exclude, exhale, and exile.

• Preposition
As a preposition, except means ‘apart from; not including’ and it’s used before you mention the only person or thing about which a statement isn’t the case:

Everyone knew what was going on except me.
The coast was deserted, except for one lone fisherman.

• Conjunction
When except acts as a conjunction, it means ‘apart from the fact that’ and it’s used before you mention something that makes a preceding statement not completely valid:

He was similarly dressed, except that his shirt hung more loosely from his body.
My car is as colourful as Rick’s, except mine is red while his is orange.

• Verb
Except can also function as a verb, though this use is fairly rare compared to the other two parts of speech: you’re most likely to encounter it in formal contexts, such as official reports. It means ‘to not include in a category or group; to exclude’:

Published material submitted for review is excepted from this rule.

There’s also a related adjective, excepted, which only occurs after a noun:

This weekend both sides will be at full strength, injuries excepted.

And a preposition, excepting, which means the same as the preposition except:

Excepting Knowles, none of them are really asked to act.

Finally, except has a few other related words which you need to beware of spelling incorrectly. Here’s an example (one of around 40 on the OEC):

X  I take acception to your remarks about Alan.

Nowadays, acception is a rarely used word. It’s related to accept, and mainly means ‘the action of taking something presented’. You’ll find it in the historical Oxford English Dictionary, but not in most current English dictionaries. The writer actually meant:

I take exception to your remarks about Alan.

Two tips

Here’s hoping you’ve accepted these explanations and found them instructive. While you may or may not agree that misusing except for accept is ‘one of the grossest errors that a published writer can commit’ (Garner’s Modern American Usage), it’s always advisable to avoid any potentially confusing or irritating faux pas. I’ll leave you with these two handy tips:

Tip 1: accept means ‘agree’ and both words start with an ‘a’.
Tip 2: except and exclude share the meaning ‘to leave out’ and both begin with ex-.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.