The Grammarphobia Blog

Affirm or confirm?

Q: To affirm or confirm? That is my question.

A: The verb “confirm” has more meanings and is more widely used than “affirm,” though there’s some overlap in the use of these words.

Standard dictionaries say either can be used to mean validate or ratify. For example, these are among the definitions that Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) lists for the two:

Affirm: “to make valid; confirm; uphold; ratify (a law, decision, or judgment).”

Confirm: “to make valid by formal approval; ratify.”

Even though the verbs do overlap, we’re more likely to use “affirm” for a judicial action (as when a court “affirms” a lower court’s ruling) and “confirm” for a legislative action (as when the Senate “confirms” an appointee).

Apart from that sense of validating or ratifying, the two verbs differ in their meanings.

“Affirm” has only one other sense, and again we’ll use the definition in Webster’s New World: “to say positively; declare firmly; assert to be true: opposed to deny.”

“Confirm” has two other general senses: (1) “to make firm; strengthen; establish; encourage”; and (2) “to prove the truth, validity, or authenticity of; verify.” (In addition, “confirm” has a religious sense: to administer the rite of confirmation.)

So we can make a couple of broad statements about the non-overlapping senses of these verbs. When you assert something originally, you “affirm” it. When you corroborate an assertion, you “confirm” it—that is, you remove doubt about something previously believed or suspected.

Here’s an example. Say that a character in a mystery novel is asked by police where he was on the night in question. He may “affirm” that he was at home all evening. Then he may be asked whether a witness can “confirm” his statement.

We can confirm, by the way, what you no doubt already know—these words are etymologically related. Both can be traced to the classical Latin adjective firmus (stable, strong, immovable). From firmus, the Romans derived firmāre (to strengthen or make fast), which in turn led to the classical Latin verbs confirmāre and affirmāre.

Those words had similar meanings in classical Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confirmāre as “to make firm, strengthen, establish, etc.,” and affirmāre as “to add strength or support to, to confirm, to ratify, to assert, to swear, to express emphasis.” Here the suffix con- means “together, altogether,” the OED says, while af– (a form of ad-) conveys the sense of the preposition “to.”

Middle English acquired “confirm” (circa 1290) directly from Old French, but “affirm” had dual origins. It entered Middle English sometime before 1325, borrowed partly from classical Latin and partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

Our word “firm” appeared around that same period, first as a verb (1303), then as an adverb (1330s or ’40s) and an adjective (1370s), all acquired through Old French or directly from Latin.

The noun “firm,” however, was a latecomer adopted from Italian. It was first recorded in 1574 when it had a meaning that’s now obsolete—“signature.” It was a borrowing of the Italian noun firma (signature), from the Italian verb firmare (to sign; a derivative of the Latin firmāre).

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun “firm” came to mean “the ‘style’ or name under which the business of a commercial house is transacted,” and hence a business partnership or a “commercial house.”

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