Commonly Confused Words: Adverse vs. Averse

Although I got my undergraduate degree in English education, I am often averse to openly correcting people’s grammar. In the past, I have provoked adverse reactions from people who either didn’t realize that I was only trying to help or just didn’t care. So now I only make corrections when an error affects the meaning of the sentence, and I usually phrase it as a question, e.g., “Did you mean to say adverse, or do you mean averse?” If you’re averse to making embarrassing grammar mistakes and the adverse consequences that can follow, learn how to use adverse vs. averse.

Adverse vs. Averse at a Glance

  • Adverse means “unfavorable” or “harmful.” It can also mean “acting against, contrary to, or in opposition.” Adverse usually refers to things.
  • Averse means “having a strong feeling of dislike, distaste, or opposition.” It almost always refers to people.

What’s the Difference Between Adverse and Averse?

It is easy to see why adverse and averse are frequently confused. The words look similar, sound similar, and have very close meanings. However, they are not quite synonymous, which is why the adverse vs. averse confusion came to be.

When To Use Adverse

According to the adverse definition, adverse is an adjective used to describe things that are, or seem to be, working against you to produce a negative outcome. Almost always, adverse is used to describe things, often intangibles. For example, if you watch advertisements for prescription medications, you frequently see and hear warnings for adverse side effects. It is common to describe unfavorable conditions, circumstances, reactions, or impacts as being adverse.

While adverse is almost always used to describe things, there may be people with whom you have an adverse relationship. Adversity, a specific condition that is unfavorable, and adversary, a person who consistently opposes you, are nouns that derive from adverse.

Examples of using adverse in a sentence:

  • The snowstorm produced weather conditions that are adverse to travel.
  • Some medications produce adverse reactions when taken with grapefruit.

When To Use Averse

Averse is an adjective used to describe a feeling of strong dislike or opposition. Since things do not have feelings, averse is almost always used to describe people. As an exception, animals may also be averse to situations that are dangerous or stressful to them. Aversion is a noun meaning a strong feeling of dislike or opposition that derives from averse.

You’ll often hear people say they are “not averse” to something. The construction, which is also common in writing, is a double negative, and some grammarians consider it incorrect. However, to say you are not averse to something is a specific kind of double negative called litotes. This literary device makes a qualified positive statement by negating one that is contrary, bringing out subtle nuances to the overall meaning. To say you are not averse to something suggests that you find it acceptable even if you are not enthusiastic about it.

Sometimes averse is part of a hyphenated construction used to form a new adjective. For example, if you don’t like to take action when the outcome is uncertain, you could be described as “risk-averse,” meaning the same as “averse to risk.”

Examples of using averse in a sentence:

  • People who are sensitive to aldehydes are averse to eating cilantro because it tastes like soap to them.
  • I am not averse to taking a hike this afternoon, although I would prefer to go swimming.
  • The CEO of the company was so conflict-averse that he would take unnecessary flights to Europe just to avoid an awkward meeting.
  • The man who was cruelly force-fed liquor became averse to even the smell of alcohol.

Knowing When To Use Adverse vs. Averse

Most of the time, you can use averse to describe feelings, whether your own or someone else’s. In contrast, adverse is typically used to describe an object or situation that is unfavorable or impedes your progress. Just remember that some exceptions may apply.

What do you do to remember how to use adverse vs. averse? Are you sensitive to being called a grammar snob? Tell us more in the comments.


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