The Grammarphobia Blog

Editing the auditors

Q: I teach accounting, a field in which people overuse – in my opinion, misuse – the word “determine.” I believe it should mean “cause,” but many use it to mean “measure.” I recently read a report that says, “PricewaterhouseCoopers determined the fair value of the portfolio.” I would say, “God and market conditions determined the fair value of the portfolio, which PwC measured.” I wonder if you have anything to say on this subject.

A: Accountants aren’t the only people who use “determine” to mean “cause” as well as “measure.”

We ordinary mortals use the word in both these senses too. Consequently, there’s room for ambiguity. Here’s a brief history of the word’s usage in common speech and writing.

The verb  “determine” has its roots in Latin, from the prefix de (“down to the bottom, completely; hence thoroughly … methodically, formally”) and terminare (“to set bounds to”). These definitions come from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thus when it  first entered English in the 14th century, to “determine” meant to be terminated – that is, to die or cease to exist.

Here’s an early citation from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “That rather dye I wold, and determyne, / As thinkith me, stokkid in prisoun.” Rough translation: “That I would rather die and determine, I think, in prison stocks.”

(This sense of the verb was used as late as 1883 by William Gladstone in a speech in Parliament: “The privileges … do not determine with the life of M. de Lesseps.”)

Later in the 14th century, “determine” was recorded in other senses, all having to do with bringing some matter to an end.

These meanings include to settle or decide a matter of debate (c. 1380); to ordain beforehand (1382); to come to a judicial decision (c. 1384); to pronounce or declare (1393); to resolve to do something or decide about (1393); to set bounds to or limit (1398).

Other senses of the verb followed: to decide the course of or give direction to (1430); to put an end to or conclude (1483); to limit in scope (a term in logic, 1555); to ascertain (1650); to fix in the causal sense (as in “the buyer determines the Price,” from Hobbes’s Leviathan, 1651); to choose from among several things (1659).

In the sentence, “PricewaterhouseCoopers determined the fair value of the portfolio,” the verb could be read in two ways. To “determine” a price could be either to set it or to find out what it is.

This is an area where misunderstanding is possible, though we’re not sure a reader of the financial report you cited would be confused.

But if there’s any chance of confusion, especially in an audit report or other accounting statement where clarity should be the goal, we’d recommend using a more precise term.

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