Word to Watch: ‘Advocate’ – The New York Times

Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. (Some frequently asked questions are here.)

My colleague Mark Bulik points out an oddly oxymoronic construction that has been popping up lately: “an anti-[blank] advocate.” It’s like saying, “He supports opposing it.”

Just a few of many recent examples:


4/25: antisettlement advocates

3/22: the anti-abortion advocate

2/14: anti-sweatshop advocates

2/12: an anti-pornography advocate


As Mark notes, there’s a perfectly good, straightforward word for people who oppose Israeli settlements, abortion, sweatshops and pornography: “opponents.” We shouldn’t force readers to do a double-take with the “anti —- advocate” phrasing.

Some of these phrases may originally have used “activist,” and may have been changed by editors wary of that word, which The Times’s stylebook says sometimes carries unintended overtones. But in some cases “activist” is perfectly accurate. And in any case, automatically changing it to “advocate” is not always an improvement.


More Trouble With ‘Advocate’

Mark also notes that despite previous admonitions, we continue to use the ungainly construction “advocate for”:


4/25: the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for farmland preservation

4/20: a former president of the court of appeals who advocates for independence in the judiciary

4/15: the Freelancers Union, which advocates for the rights of contingent workers

4/11: executive director of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, which advocates for diversity in casting


“Advocate” is a transitive verb that should take a direct object. You advocate limited government; you don’t advocate FOR limited government. If “advocate” alone doesn’t sound right, consider alternatives like “work for,” “campaign for” or “press for.”


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