English Plus+ News, December 1998

Censor vs. Censure (for Political Understanding)

What is a Censure? A Censor? What's the Difference?
I know I said last month that I was working on an article about the limits and capabilities of Grammar Checkers. That will be coming, but I felt I had to change the topic of the newsletter this month because of significant political events in the United States.

Last week, for the second time in the 222 year history of the United States a president was impeached. The lower legislative body, the House of Representatives, voted to accuse President Clinton of certain crimes including perjury and obstruction of justice. According to the U. S. Constitution, the charges are sent to the Senate, the upper legislative body, where a trial is held and the Senate votes on whether or not to remove the president from office.

Almost immediately there were calls for some kind of compromise or plea bargain. Most of these calls were for censure. And that is where the language problems began.

Censure and censor are similar-sounding and involve some kind of government regulation or judgment. However, these two words mean something very different. If you do not confuse them, it will help you follow a variety of political events more closely.

Both words are politically loaded. I have seen them frequently misused, even by people who should know better. In the case of censor, I believe that sometimes the people do know better, they do it deliberately.

Censure is a "formal rebuke" or "official displeasure." It is done by someone, usually some kind of assembly, in authority. The s in the word is pronounced like as sh, just as in the word sure. The U.S. Congress has censured its members a number of times for unbecoming conduct. Usually there is no specific punishment, just an official notice. In the U.S. Congress, that may mean the end of a political career, but not always. About ten years ago two congressmen were censured for sexual activity with underage house pages. One resigned as a result of the censure; the other has been re-elected and still serves.

Censure can be either a noun or a verb, though the verb is more common. Noun example--"The censure of Sen. McCarthy effectively ended his career." Verb example--"The Synod voted to censure the priest for his unauthorized activities."

Censor means "to regulate or prohibit writing or speech." This is normally a verb. When used as a noun, censor is "a person who censors." Verb example--"Soldiers' letters from war zones are frequently censored to avoid passing on sensitive information." Noun example--"The soldier would have to carefully word his letter so that it would pass the censor."

The activity or condition of censoring is called censorship, the suffix is like the -ship suffix in friendship. I recently heard one of the elected representatives speak of "Censureship of the president." There is no such word. One would think that a professional lawmaker would understand that. Now if the president were sent to prison, then what he wrote might be censored by prison authorities. (Please understand, I am trying to carefully not take a stand here on the political issue: I am just using this as an example.)

The word censor has been bandied about loosely in political contexts. We sometimes read of parents of schoolchildren or patrons of libraries objecting to certain books. Teachers' unions and some activist organizations may refer to such things as "censorship" or such parents or patrons as "censors." This is not censorship in most cases. There is usually no call to legally ban or rewrite the books in question. It is usually a call to either not have their own children read them or to remove the book from the curriculum. (I teach; I have experienced this). On the other hand, the Lord's Prayer has been censored, at least in U.S. public schools, since 1963. That was an official act of the Supreme Court limiting this kind of speech in public schools.

Occasionally college incidents that may involve censorship make the news. Many campuses have "underground" or "alternative" newspapers. On a few campuses, students opposed to the these papers have seized as many copies as they could before the papers could be distributed. In some cases there were hardly any copies left. Such students were acting as censors, though they had no official backing. At at least three campuses in the United States, the administration supported such seizures. When it became officially sanctioned as it was in these cases, then the act became censorship.

If there were any questions of censorship surrounding President Clinton's difficulties, they had to do with the content of the Special Prosecutor's Report and testimonies of some of the witnesses. Some did argue that the Special Prosecutor's report should have been censored to remove some of the explicit details the way that the Nixon tapes were during the Watergate hearings. The famous "expletive deleted" from the transcripts of the Watergate tapes is an example of censorship.

To sum up, censoring is regulating or prohibiting types of speech or writing. Censuring is an official rebuke of a person for some offense. This may help you as you sort through the news in the coming weeks.

I do hope to continue with the idea of what a grammar checking program can and cannot do next time.


Our program Grammar Slammer Deluxe includes many words like censor/censure that people often confuse. These words are ones that spell checkers and grammar checkers often overlook because both are real words in English. Grammar Slammer Deluxe has two components--Grammar Slammer (demo available for download) and Spelling Slammer (Grammar Slammer demo includes sample). This handy resource will help you overcome such confusion.
Go to http://englishplus.com/pub/grmslm20.zip for latest Grammar Slammer Demo

The weekly computer magazine Infoworld has been carrying a series of articles on what it calls the "technopropisms" caused by unthinking dependence on spell and grammar checkers. Grammar Slammer Deluxe was created to help you overcome this. Some of those articles are linked below.

A recent article on the seizure and destruction of campus newspapers can be found at http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/981207/7john.htm.

For the original work on Freedom of the Press and Speech, see Milton's Areopagitica from 1644 at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/areopagitica/part_1/index.html.
A "modernist" interpretation of Areopagitica is at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/lawschool/occpaper/blasi.htm

We wish you the best in 1999, and may all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+

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