Etymology Usage

Satisfaction guaranteed

Q: I’m at a loss. Can you help clarify the difference between “guarantee” and “guaranty”?

A: Some sticklers insist on a difference in meaning, but we disagree. In contemporary English, “guarantee” and “guaranty” are nearly always interchangeable as nouns and verbs.

They differ in that “guarantee” is far more popular, and “guaranty” is used in the proper names of some financial institutions. (There’s a difference in pronunciation, too: “guarantee” is stressed on the last syllable, “guaranty” on the first.)

We’ll get to the sticklers later, but first let’s look at what Henry Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, has to say about this in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

“Fears of choosing the wrong one of these two are natural, but needless,” Fowler writes. “As things now are, -ee is never wrong where either is possible.”

Although “guaranty” may be preferred in some legal uses, he adds, it’s OK to use “guarantee” for these senses too.

“Those who wish to avoid mistakes have in fact only to use -ee always,” he concludes.

As for contemporary English, R. W. Burchfield, writing in the 2004 revised third edition of the usage guide, says Fowler’s “advice is still sound.”

All the standard dictionaries we checked have either similar definitions for “guarantee” and “guaranty,” or don’t bother to include an entry for “guaranty.”

“As a look at any good dictionary will show,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “these two words are interchangeable in almost all of their uses.”

In fact, both the Associated Press and New York Times style books recommend that “guarantee” be used in all cases except in proper names (Guaranty Bank & Trust Co., for example).

Dictionaries define the noun this way: (1) something that assures an outcome; (2) a promise about the quality of a product; (3) a pledge that something will be done in a specified manner; (4) a promise to assume responsibility for another’s debts.

And here’s how the verb is defined: (1) to assume responsibility for another’s debts; (2) to assure the quality of a product; (3) to undertake to do something for another; (4) to make certain of something; (5) to furnish security; (6) to express with conviction.

Bryan A. Garner, one of the sticklers we mentioned above, disagrees with us. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), he recommends using “guaranty” for a promise to pay money if someone else fails to do so.

Garner has history on his side, if not modern usage.

The first of these words to enter English is the noun “guaranty,” which showed up in the late 1500s as a promise to answer for someone else’s debts, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “guarantee” appeared in the mid-1600s, the verb “guaranty” in the mid-1700s, and the verb “guarantee” in the late 1700s.

The OED says English adopted “guaranty” from the Anglo-Norman guarantie. The “guarantee” version apparently began as a misuse, “perhaps taken as a semi-phonetic adoption of French garantie.”

In summary, “guaranty” has history on its side, especially used in the sense Garner prefers, but “guarantee” has passed the test of time.

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