The Grammarphobia Blog

Holding patterns: “maintain” vs. “retain”

Q: Can “maintain” and “retain” be used interchangeably? If not, please explain the differences and give some examples. I’m writing from Iran and find your blog very helpful.

A: These words aren’t interchangeable, though they do overlap a bit in their meanings, and they have an etymological relative in common.

To “retain” is to keep in one’s possession; to hire; to remember or keep in mind; or keep in one’s service or pay.

To “maintain” is to preserve or keep in an existing state; support or provide for; uphold or defend; affirm or assert; or adhere or conform to.

These definitions are derived from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The clue to what these words have in common is the word element “-tain.” This element doesn’t exist as a separate word in English, but if it did it would mean “hold” or “keep.”

The “-tain” in words like “maintain” and “retain” developed from the Latin tenere (to hold), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It came into English words that were adopted from French, in which tenir means to hold.

English has many such words besides the two you ask about, including “contain,” “detain,” “pertain,” and “sustain.”

Sometimes this word element (spelled “ten-”) appears at the beginning of a word having to do with holding, as in “tenant,” “tenacious,” and “tenable.”

As for the two verbs you asked about, English adapted “maintain” from the Anglo-Norman maintenir in the early 1300s, when it meant  to support or assist. And English got “retain” from the Anglo-Norman retener in the early 1400s, when it meant to restrain, prevent, or hinder.

Note: After reading this post, a reader comments, “Perhaps it is just the teacher in me, but I view retain with more negative connotations than maintain. Retain is holding back, while maintain is holding up. (I know this isn’t always the case.) Example: If a student cannot maintain her grades, I will be forced to retain her.

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