January 7, 2010

Language Tips; neglect or negligence & burnt or burned

Posted in burned/burnt, neglect/negligence at 10:13 am by dlseltzer

Happy New Year!

Tip 1: negligence or neglect

A reader writes:

Thank you for creating this wonderful blog. It has helped me, and I’m sure countless others to better understand and correct their everyday errors in an easy-to-read and amusing fashion.

I also have a quick question. What difference do you see between neglect and negligence? I see negligence as mistreatment of inanimate objects and seems most fitting in a legal context whereas neglect has connotations of prolonged mistreatment and that the mistreatment is directed toward a human (or other creature). What do you think?

First, let me thank you for your very kind words. As to neglect and negligence, you are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Let me explain.

In general, the words are synonyms. Both mean the act of being remiss in taking care of something. Interestingly, the two words have different origins. Negligence comes from the Latin neglegentia, meaning ‘carelessness, heedlessness,’ and neglect comes from the Latin neglectus, meaning ‘to make light of, disregard.’ Both can be used in reference to both people and things.

I’ve been so busy, I’ve been neglecting my homework.

I went out to see my friends, and I neglected to feed the dog.

I was negligent when it came to attending to the plant.

Some might call leaving a child to fend for himself negligence.

However, the differences are apparent when the words are used in their legal sense.

When used in legal terms, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, neglect means ‘a disregard of duty resulting from carelessness, indifference, or willfulness; especially : a failure to provide a child under one’s care with proper food, clothing, shelter, supervision, medical care, or emotional stability.’ According to the same dictionary, negligence, when used in a legal sense means ‘failure to exercise the degree of care expected of a person of ordinary prudence in like circumstances in protecting others from a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm in a particular situation.’ it often refers to neglect of a building. So when it comes to legal terms, neglect is usually used in reference to people, and negligence is usually used in reference to things.

In researching this, it was fun to see all the ways negligence is used in law.

There’s comparative negligence, contributory negligence, criminal negligence, gross negligence ordinary negligence, passive negligence, simple negligence, and slight negligence.

You’ve got to love the law.

Tip 2: Burned or burnt

For some, late December and January means that it’s holiday time, and it’s a time of festivity and relaxation. For others of us, who live and die on the acquisition of grants, it’s about as far from the holidays as you can get. This year has been particularly brutal. So, last night, after working 12 hours straight, when I got an e-mail asking me to review yet another grant proposal right away, I responded that it would have to wait because I was burned out. I felt bad because I hate to let anyone down. Then I wondered, should it be burned or burnt. Was I burned out or burnt out?

Oh, the things we think about when there are no other thoughts to be had.

It turns out that both words are correct. In the UK, burnt is used most commonly. In the US, burned is used most frequently, and burnt is used primarily as an adjective.

I burned the supper, so we will have burnt vegetables tonight.

So that’s pretty simple, but I’ll tell you this, last night, whether I was burned out or burnt out, I was toast.



  1. Stefanie said,

    As to neglect and negligence being synonyms in their more general use, would it really mean the same if we said:
    1) The neglect of this building led to its collapse,
    2) The negligence of this building led to its collapse?

    To me, 2) sounds funny, as though the neglect had been on the side of the building, rather than on the side of its owners. Or am I wrong?

    • I think the phrasing of both those sentences should be ‘toward’ rather than ‘of.’ The use of ‘of’ just sounds okay with ‘neglect’ because we use ‘neglect’ more often in casual conversation than ‘negligence.’

  2. Anonymous said,

    “neglect, n. (16c) 1. The omission of proper attention to a person or thing, whether inadvertent, negligent, or willful; the act or condition of disregarding. 2. The failure to give proper attention, supervision, or necessities, esp. to a child, to such an extent that harm results or is likely to result. Cf. ABUSE. — neglect, vb. — neglectful, adj.
    “ ‘Neglect’ is not the same thing as ‘negligence’. In the present connection the word ‘neglect’ indicates, as a purely objective fact, that a person has not done that which it was his duty to do; it does not indicate the reason for this failure. ‘Negligence,’ on the other hand, is a subjective state of mind, and it indicates a particular reason why the man has failed to do his duty, namely because he has not kept the performance of the duty in his mind as he ought to have done. A man can ‘neglect’ his duty either intentionally or negligently.” J.W. Cecil Turner, Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law 108 n.1 (16th ed. 1952).”–Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009)

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