The Grammarphobia Blog

Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” in place of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: This is a head-scratcher. I don’t know what your bosses are thinking.

The preposition “versus” has been used in English to mean against since it was borrowed in the 15th century from a Latin past participle meaning turned toward or against.

“Vice” has been used as a preposition to mean in place of, but that sense of the word is rarely seen now except as a prefix or adjectival noun in titles where “vice” describes a deputy or one who acts in place of another. For example, “vice chairman” or “vice admiral.”

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on.

Interestingly, a Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” but this abusage doesn’t seem very common.

Where does it come from? Perhaps some people confuse “versus” with “vice versa”; they then use “vice” as a shortened version of “vice versa,” which means conversely or with the order reversed.

Or perhaps this linguistic vice is related somehow to the popular colloquial use of “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against, as in “We’re versing the Orioles today.” I wrote a blog item a couple of months ago about this use of “verse.”

One other possibility. A reader of the blog reports seeing this usage in the armed forces, where “vice” was used for “in place of” in updates of military manuals. He suspects that the source of the usage at your workplace may be a former member of the armed forces.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.