[Note: This post was updated on June 10, 2020.]
Q: Can a single person make a concerted effort? The dictionaries I’ve checked say a “concerted effort” is something done collectively. But I often hear the phrase being used for an effort by one person.
A: Traditionally, “concerted” has meant done in concert—that is, jointly.
However, the adjective had an earlier meaning of organized, coordinated, or united. And since the 19th century people have used “concerted” without any collective sense to mean purposeful and determined.
The newer usage can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. The entry for “concerted” (updated September 2015) includes this definition: “Of an effort, attempt, etc.: characterized by purpose and determination.”
Standard dictionaries, too, are now recognizing this more recent sense. So a determined effort can be described as “concerted” whether it’s made by one person or many.
Six of the ten standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult accept this use without reservation.
The definitions in American Heritage, for example, include these senses: #1, “planned or accomplished together,” and #2, “deliberate and determined.” Similarly, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) includes #1, “jointly arranged or carried out,” and #2, “done with great effort or determination.”
While “concerted” is most often used to modify “effort” or “efforts,” it’s seen with other nouns too. A cursory internet search finds it paired with “movement,” “action,” “approach,” “measure,” “struggle,” and “activity,” as well as plural versions.
The earliest recorded sense of “concerted” dates from the mid-17th century and is defined in the OED as “showing coordination, organized, united.”
In the first citation, the well-organized parts of a sentence are said to have “the insinuating harmony of a well-concerted period.” From Thomas Urquhart’s Εκσκυβαλαυρον, 1652. (The Greek title means “gold from garbage,” but the book is often referred to as The Jewel).
Similar examples of this coordinated sense include “concerted Reasoning” (1659) and “concerted Falshoods” (1716).
By the late 1600s, however, people were also using “concerted” in what are now considered the traditional senses. These are defined by the OED as “united in action or purpose; working or acting in concert,” and “jointly arranged or carried out; agreed upon, prearranged; planned, coordinated.”
This is apparently the first OED example in reference to people working together: “that which opposed the sending the concerted Troops into Tuscany and making further attempts, being the disturbance which rose from the Duke of Parma.” The History of the Republick of Venice (1673), Robert Honywood’s translation from the Italian of Battista Nani.
Later OED examples that imply more than one person or force working together include “the concerted powers” (i.e., sovereigns of Europe, 1793); “a concerted scheme” (1785); “a concerted opposition” (1834); “a concerted front” (1948); “concerted attack” (1968); “concerted practices” (1999), and “a concerted group” (2009).
Finally, the more recent sense of “concerted”—determined, purposeful, strenuous—emerged in the 19th century. It can involve one person or more than one. In the dictionary’s first example, many people are involved:
“We have but to make a vigorous and concerted effort throughout the State to effect a complete overthrow of Locofocoism in Alabama.” (The Locofocos were a faction of the Democratic Party of the 1830s and ’40s.) From the Mobile Daily Advertiser, July 23, 1844.
In this OED example, from the late 19th century, a single country is involved:
“He says that Germany should make a concerted effort to have an exhibit that would photograph the magnitude of its manufacturing industries.” From the Anglo-American Times, London, Oct. 9, 1891.
And in this example, the effort is made by a single person:
“When Horace Abbott … was chairman of this committee he made a concerted effort to get some graduate schools to work out a plan for study in absentia.” From the Extension Service Review, Washington, June 1938.
As for its etymology, the OED says the adjective “concerted” was formed within English, derived partly from the verb “concert” (to work jointly; to mutually agree or arrange) and partly from the noun “concert” (agreement or harmony; a working together; a public performance).
The verb “concert” (accented, like the adjective, on the first syllable) was first recorded in 1581 and came into English through several routes. As the dictionary explains, it was borrowed partly from Spanish (concertar), partly from French (concerter), and partly from the ultimate source of them all, Latin (concertare).
The noun “concert” was first recorded in 1578, the OED says, borrowed partly from French (concert, originally an agreement, accord, or pact), and partly from Italian (concerto, a group of musicians performing together).