The Grammarphobia Blog

Advocacy English

Q: Do you “advocate” something? Or do you “advocate for” something?

A: If you rally round a cause, you “advocate” it; you don’t “advocate for” it (“He advocates universal free health care”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the verb means to “speak, plead, or argue in favor of” something.

So a prepositional sense (“in favor of”) is part of the verb and no additional preposition or prepositional phrase is necessary.

However, “advocate” is also a noun meaning a supporter or defender (“He is an advocate of universal free health care”).

Although the verb shouldn’t be followed by a preposition (like “for”)  or a prepositional phrase (like “in favor of”), the noun is another matter.

It can stand alone (“She is an advocate”) and it can be followed by a prepositional phrase (“She’s an advocate of free school lunches” … “He’s an advocate for the underprivileged”).

Perhaps that last usage (to be an “advocate for” something) leads people to use “advocate for” as a verb phrase.

But using “advocate” as part of a verb phrase (as in “We advocate for cheaper prescription drugs”) isn’t considered standard usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Advocate the verb is used almost entirely as a transitive verb and usually takes no preposition at all.” (A transitive verb is one that needs a direct object to make sense.)

The noun “advocate” (pronounced AD-vuh-kut) was first recorded in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came into the language from the Old French avocat, which in turn came from the Latin advocatus. The Latin meaning was “one summoned or ‘called to’ another, especially one called in to aid one’s cause in a court of justice,” the OED explains.

In 14th-century England, the noun “advocate” had both a legal meaning (one who pleads in court) and a more figurative or general sense: “one who pleads, intercedes, or speaks for, or in behalf of, another; a pleader, intercessor, defender.”

The verb in its modern sense (pronounced AD-vuh-kate) came much later, in the mid-1700s, the OED says. And Benjamin Franklin, for one, didn’t like it.

In a 1789 letter to Noah Webster, Franklin complained about several new words, including the use of “advocate” as a verb.

“If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations,” Franklin said, “you will use your authority in reprobating them.”

Webster apparently felt differently. In An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), he described the verb as transitive, with the meaning “to plead in favor of; to defend by argument, before a tribunal; to support or vindicate.”

Check out our books about the English language